There was a general sigh of relief all around Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night when the referee blew the final whistle. It shouldn’t have been that way but the canter to the line suddenly needed a little more whip to get there, particularly after Loic Remy briefly changed what had been a one-horse race up until then. Fortunately there was enough experience in the Chelsea side to stamp out the nonsense and apart from one more heavy-leggy Loic break on the left, there wasn’t that much to worry about in retrospect.
That experience did tell in the end with N’Golo Kante being his usual brilliant, driving self and Cesar Azpilicueta calming things down too. He was also able to bask in the rare glory of scoring not only the winner on the night, but the goal that ultimately sent us through to the last 16. Experience hasn’t always been the first word that has sprung to mind when you have watched Chelsea this season. Frank to be fair has consistently said that it is about those who are playing the best, as opposed to just wedging the kids into the team come what may.
So for arguably the biggest game of the season Reece James, Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi were all left on the bench. With Toni Rudiger also back, Fikayo Tomori might have joined them on the sidelines had he not been injured. It was a seriously experienced side that Frank started with and it seems like the need for Champions League know-how trumped our youthful exuberance just for once with the gaffer. The one youthful starter was Tammy Abraham and that was a pretty good decision as well considering he scored the opener. It turned out to be correct decisions all round because in the midfield in particular, we dominated for most of the game.
The midfield was a big discussion point beforehand with the ‘four into three doesn’t go’ mathematical dilemma still to the fore. It feels wrong to leave out one of Kante, Jorginho, Kovacic or Mount at the moment, but that is what the boss has to decide on every week. Jason and I discussed it in the live video shown on The 5th Stand before the game and came to the same conclusion in the end.
There was no dilemma for the manager when Rudiger declared himself fit. He came back into the side and seemed to be about as rusty as a brand new smartphone bought this morning. He was slick, fast, communicating well, very stylish in his play and he seemed to have no difficulty whatsoever in his recharged battery lasting the 90-plus minutes. You could argue he didn’t have much to do, but his reading of the play made it look easier than it might have been.
It may well be the case that whenever he is fit it will be a battle between Kurt Zouma, Andreas Christensen and Fikayo Tomori as to who partners him each week. Right now I couldn’t say who will get the job on a semi-permanent basis and I suspect Frank isn’t 100 per cent sure either. Kurt is in possession, but maybe Fikayo would look like the more natural long-term solution from the outside but it isn’t always that simple. In that position it is about how the players and their abilities dovetail with each other. Sometimes you could do with players who are slightly different but have complimentary strengths. There is always the importance about understanding each other’s weaknesses and preferences to, and sometimes it can be best just to have to great friends supporting each other back there.
If Toni stays fit we will find out the answer soon enough. Like everyone else at Cobham he will have been disappointed we didn’t manage a clean sheet against Lille. Like strikers who go on runs of scoring, defences can go on runs of clean sheets, especially when you get a steady settled back line playing together for a decent period of time. That hasn’t happened yet this season, but through no fault of anyone’s, the injuries have had more of an effect than we could have planned for.
Our visitors this coming weekend, Bournemouth, have had even more problems at the back than we have and it has had a noticeable effect on them over the past five matches. To add to their woes their talismanic defender Nathan Ake is now crocked as well, definitely the very last thing Eddie Howe and his team needs at this crucial time with so many games coming thick and fast. We wish the best for Nathan in his recovery from that hamstring strain and that is said with some feeling.
When Chelsea fans are asked who they would like to buy in January now that the transfer ban has been lifted, our former starlet is very high on the wish list of just about everyone. He behaved impeccably while he was here and was simply just very unlucky with his timing at the club. You do wonder if he was breaking through right now at Chelsea, whether he would be regarded in a very different light by the current coaching regime.
I am writing this on the early morning flight from Munich after the Bayern Munich v Spurs game. I was keen to see this game because we could well draw Bayern in the next Champions League knockout round and maybe more pertinently, Spurs have finally rediscovered their mojo after an impotent final period under Mauricio Pochettino. Jose will get them organised, there is no doubt of that and similarly up in Manchester, Ole Gunner Solskjaer has instilled more verve in United’s play than they have had for a couple of years.
In short, we have a little gap over both of them in the league but it is absolutely my expectation that they will both have better second halves to their seasons than their first halves. A win against a currently ‘struggling’ Bournemouth is critical for us to have some breathing space from the chasing pack in race for the top four come the New Year. The slip ups to the similarly ‘struggling’ Everton and West Ham highlight that anything less than full concentration will not be enough, especially as the Cherries haven’t had an energy sapping Champions League game to get over this week. There haven’t been many easy games this season and this probably will not be one either.