So the Premier League season ends with a third-place finish that is just about the best that could have been reasonably hoped for considering the points totals that Man City and Liverpool had. Top of the London clubs has a nice ring to it as well and of course the possibility of a major European trophy is also still a very real one.
The players are in the US for the New England game but mostly it is now all about the preparation for Baku.
We can openly admit we got through the Eintracht Frankfurt tie by the skin of our teeth but instead of fretting about how tense it was, it is worth remembering that big competitions at the end of the season are often only won by a hair’s breadth.
Consider how close our two Champions League finals were in both Munich and Moscow. Can you get any more nerve-racking than penalties going to what was effectively sudden death? Even the Europa League triumph back in 2013 was an incredibly slender one with Branislav Ivanovic getting the winning goal in the 93rd minute of the match.
The point is that by this time in the season it is purely about winning and not about how you win. I am an avowed purist but even I understand that for all the desire to get the result in a stylish way, there is also a huge importance to be placed on spirit, doggedness and downright bloody mindedness on some occasions. So a 0-0 draw away to Leicester may not sound that inspiring but it was enough to get that third spot; the penalties against Eintracht the same in reaching the target, and if we beat Arsenal with Eden Hazard taking the shoot-out’s final penalty after a no-scoring 120 minutes, that will do for me.
This season might not be up there with some of the glorious ones in the recent past but I still think it represents success, though what it means for the future, well I know about as much or as little as any Chelsea fan.
Most people working at the club, apart from a very select few, do not have the luxury of looking that far into the future. No further than a fortnight is the reality. That length of preparation time on this occasion however is a godsend, giving many of our players a chance to either recover from niggling injuries or rest before that huge final push. It is very noticeable, over and above any other decision the manager has made, how hard he has tried to give Eden Hazard as much rest as is humanly possible. He had to do this without damaging the two goals of Champions League qualification and the road to the Europa final.
It can be categorically stated now that this particular plan has worked. Eden did look a shadow of his usual self against Eintracht in the second half so clearly he needed a break against Leicester, but he was on when he was needed to score that massively pressurised penalty, though to be fair he looked outwardly like the person under least stress in the entire stadium at the crucial moment.
Managing is an inexact science, which was shown when Maurizio brought on Davide Zappacosta and not Gary Cahill in that game to the surprise of many draped in blue. However our Italian full-back suddenly looked like our most dangerous player, having a fine shot on target and a couple of vicious crosses after using his boundless energy to get up the field. It could have easily gone wrong and the opprobrium would have rained down torrentially, but it didn’t. As I have said, those margins are agonisingly fine at this stage and the reasons for the decisions not always immediately apparent. The important thing is that they work.
There is a flip side to the rather long break between the final league game and the Europa League final itself. Yes the rest and recuperation is welcome, but sometimes both your body and your psyche don’t play fair. At the end of I believe 17 out of the 19 seasons that I was a professional footballer I was ill within a week. Sometimes it was a heavy cold or sometimes it was a sickness or stomach bug, but in simple terms my body and mind shut down whether I liked it or not, and succumbed to anything that was going around. There is no control over it at all and the last thing any of our lads would want over the next week or so is a debilitating illness that leaves them weakened.
The psychology of playing one-off games this late is tough, particularly as quite a few have hardly had a real recovery period for two whole seasons after attending the World Cup last summer. I specifically say attending and not playing, because even if you are just in the squad and not playing your body still has to be worked to peak level in case you are needed from the bench.
The sports scientists and the medics will be working overtime on this one. I well remember playing one international qualifying match in June, it was madness. It was ‘only’ Estonia and we were expected to win at a canter (yes I know you can’t say that for any Scotland game now!). We won 3-1 and I made one and scored the other two, but even so the abiding memory was of being more exhausted in that game than any other game in my entire career. It was a huge shock but a real lesson; you do not get to decide when the tiredness will hit you so you have to be on your guard, especially at this time.
I’m hoping the tiredness that has been evident in some of the players will have been overcome by the time we get to Azerbaijan. If we can walk out into that stadium and be somewhere close to our best there is no need to fear Arsenal. Respect them and their strikers in particular yes, but fear them? No. Look at the league table, look at our end to the season which was far from perfect, but in comparison to theirs it was better. Yes, we should absolutely believe it is well within our capabilities.