It was shaping up to be one of those horrifying memories that wakes you up with the night-sweats for months afterwards. One of those things you see and immediately know you’re going to wish you hadn’t.
Such as the ball dropping out of a dark sky into our penalty area, and Ben Foster, of all people, rising like a… well, like an opposing goalkeeper, I guess, in a high-vis orange shirt to nod it downwards into the bottom corner, thereby consigning two well-earned points to the bin and ruining an otherwise perfect Saturday evening.
It hadn’t even happened yet, and I could already see myself bolting upright from under the duvet at the memory of it, breathless and clammy like in the movies, every night at about 3.30 from now to Christmas and possibly beyond.
But no. Foster did indeed go full ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, smashing a hole in our defence’s front door with an axe and, with a wild expression on his face, growling ‘Here’s Benny’ (or whatever)… Yet, even as the scream was leaving your mouth, there was Kepa stretching down to his left and flipping the ball away with the reflexes of a house-fly, though obviously much more attractive to look at than that. And straight away the whistle blew, the points were secure, and everybody got to grab hold of everybody else and jump up and down for a while in relief.
Kepa’s finest split-second in a Chelsea shirt? It’s got to be up there, hasn’t it?
I heard a pundit talk knowingly afterwards about ‘the quality gap’ between the two sides on Saturday. I didn’t disagree. The quality gap had been on display all afternoon. At the same time, the lesson, surely, was how far a ‘quality gap’ will get you – which, strangely, is not necessarily all that far. You can play with calm and composure, dominate possession in another team’s ground, and find yourself comfortably two goals ahead. But that doesn’t mean you won’t concede a highly unfortunate late penalty and then watch in frozen horror as Watford’s goalkeeper comes pounding up the pitch to throw himself like a lemming at a last-minute free-kick. Because this, of course, is football, and football, as we all know, is no straightforward respecter of quality gaps.
We have seen a couple of games turn a touch tense near the end recently, despite the evident quality gap. Not disastrously, as it turned out. But tense anyway. There was the game at Burnley, when the well-plumped cushion of a four-goal lead grew slightly less cosy with the concession of two late ones. And now there was this session against Watford, where a generally un-stressful evening closed with all us digging our nails into our palms.
You could see all this as a noble commitment on the part of our club to the cause of ‘making it interesting for the neutral’ – except that, of course, the interest of the neutral isn’t any of our business.
Perhaps better, then, to see it as an inevitable consequence of the current project in the brave dawn of the Frank Lampard era – and, in a funny way, a deep part of the appeal of it. Certainly I seem to be at the stage with this young and enthralling side where the imperfections, such as they are, only seem to bond me even more firmly to these players. The infrequent mistakes, the occasional glimpses of a rough edge, the odd slip and stumble along the way – they only make you love them more, surely. Especially when Kepa is clawing out a nailed-on equaliser and that team is going third.
And especially when you are being treated to things like the assist from Jorginho for Tammy Abraham’s goal. If an alien came to your front door and demanded to know why humankind now uses the word ‘assist’ as a noun instead of simply as a verb, then this, surely, is what you would unhesitatingly produce as an explanation. That pass was so exquisitely executed and so downright brainy that it deserves to be screened on a permanent loop in the foyer at the National Museum of Football in Manchester. I mean, shirts worn by Pele and coats worn by John Motson are all very well, but if you’re seriously looking at curating a temple to the game on historic principles, why not get something on display in there that entirely defines football at its best with no further questions necessary?
Whatever, that’s five successive away wins in the league, and seven successive away wins in all competitions, which, as far as I understand it, matches the club record. It’s also just one negligible loss in nine games, which is some properly substantial momentum to be taking into tonight’s Champions League game.
Wherein, as you know, we will be visited by Ajax, if not, unfortunately, their fans. Ah well. Sometimes, as a fan, you actually wish you had stayed at home, and hopefully, for them, this will be one of those nights.