Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts

Time to look back on a league season when the table doesn’t lie writes columnist and Chelsea fan Giles Smith, who also poses a question about Champions League qualification...

No doubt some people will look at the bare facts from last Sunday (a 0-0 draw at Leicester, and last in the Match of the Day running order) and conclude that this was the very definition of ending the Premier League season with a whimper rather than a bang.

As ever in this column, though, we prefer to take the brighter view if we can find it – seeking the bang within the whimper, as it were. And frankly, if securing the point that guarantees third place ahead of Tottenham counts as more whimper than bang, then we no longer understand the whole bang/whimper distinction and will have to go away and think about it very hard over the summer.

Okay, so Tottenham who could only draw at home to Everton, were once again extremely obliging on the last day - as they have been throughout this run-in phase, in fact, along with Arsenal and, most generously of all, Manchester United, who kept the dysfunction going all the way through to their wince-inducing final 2-0 home defeat against already relegated Cardiff.

By that point United’s efforts no longer mattered to us either way, of course, in terms of our top-four placing, but that’s the sign of a properly adjusted side: one that continues giving everything, even when there is nothing riding on it. We thank them.

Nevertheless, the faltering efforts of our rivals aside, if there is one truth in football that nobody disputes, it’s that the table doesn’t lie. And the table shows that we have ended 2018/19 as the third best team in the country – which, in a season in which the top two effectively broke away and formed their own super league, can hardly be labelled a disgrace.

And it’s exactly the hard-earned results like Sunday’s draw at Leicester (who were fresh, let’s not forget, from having almost comprehensively derailed Manchester City’s title charge) which have ensured that we’re in the happy position in which we find ourselves. When the chips were down in that sprint for the line, our players kept their nerve and showed consistency where it counted, winning one and drawing three of our last four matches, in stark contrast with Tottenham and Arsenal, who both lost two, won one and drew one, and with United, who melted like a small knob of butter in a very hot frying pan.

Bear in mind that this was also the season in which we were the lottery of penalties away from winning the Carabao Cup and have advanced to the final of the Europa League, where we can potentially qualify for next season’s Champions League for a second time in the same season.

What happens if you qualify for the Champions League three times in one season? Do you get to keep it? A question for another day. All one can say is that, despite the many frustrations along the way this year, we’ve definitely seen worse.

Our place in the Europa League final was secured in the late drama of that shoot-out at the Bridge a week ago. It’s interesting what takes shape in your mind as the individual players walk down the pitch on those occasions. For instance, I had strong feelings about how Cesar Azpilicueta’s penalty was going to go. I felt very, very confident that he would bury it. And I had strong feelings about how David Luiz’s penalty was going to go, too. I felt very, very confident that he was going to break a window in the Millennium Hotel.

Dave missed, and David Luiz didn’t. Of course, one had similar doubts about that fast-bowler’s run-up from just outside the centre circle that David Luiz likes to take in Munich in 2012, and one was categorically mistaken on that occasion also.

You can get it badly wrong, is the message.

On the other hand, when Eden Hazard stepped forward, I felt as close to certainty about the outcome as one could feel in the circumstances of the sharp end of a penalty shoot-out. It just seemed pre-ordained, as things involving Hazard so frequently have these past years. If that turns out to be the last kick Hazard takes in a Chelsea shirt at Stamford Bridge, then I guess at least there was something comfortingly Drogba-esque about it and we can have few complaints. Only gratitude, in fact.

That semi-final was a sticky task, all in all, but I was glad we persisted with it, through extra-time and beyond. Arsenal’s game had already finished and, with three English clubs already in the two finals, it would have looked a bit snooty if we had declined to attend on the grounds that this doesn’t really count as European football, or not in the way one prefers to think of it. Ours is not to quibble, though. As they say, you can only beat what’s put in front of you. And in Baku what’s put in front of us is Arsenal.


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