Talk about games coming thick and fast. Indeed, have games ever come faster or thicker? Tonight we get to see if we can finish off Malmo and go through to the last-16 stage of the Europa League. Then, indecently soon afterwards, there’s the Carabao Cup final at Wembley with City, against whom we had that slightly unfortunate experience the other Sunday. And then, next Wednesday night, again with barely a moment to get the kit washed and properly dried, there’s the league match at home to Tottenham, for whom this will be only the second game in an entire fortnight, and with a fair bit hanging on it in terms of the plausibility of securing a place in the Champions League for 2019/20.
All this in the rather too recent wake of experiencing the disappointment of going out to a not-especially-impressive Manchester United side in an FA Cup competition that was beginning (give or take the presence of Manchester City) to look intriguingly open.
So, however else you want to rate this current phase in our season, you can’t fault it for relentlessness. It’s as if the gods of fixture scheduling have looked down upon us and said, ‘You seem to be going through a bit of a tricky patch at the moment, in terms of performances: here’s four games in 10 days, three of them against top-four opposition, all of them with the potentially critical consequences for the overall shape of your year. Enjoy!’
No doubt there’s an argument available somewhere which suggests that this is exactly what a struggling side needs in such circumstances (meaningful urgency, continuously big challenges, no breathing space in which to dwell neurotically on what’s gone before) but I’ve got to say, as a fan, I’m finding it a touch hard to muster it. Brighton at home in the Prem (which was the original plan for this weekend) and the rest of the week off would have felt a little more comfortable to my mind. Also, a little more reasonable.
On the other hand, why choose a quiet life? Why be Tottenham, say, or Liverpool, who effectively halved their allotted quota of projects for 2018/19 whole weeks ago? (While Tottenham continue to drum their fingers and stare out the window, Liverpool hadn’t played for 10 days when they took on Bayern Munich in the Champions League the other evening, which is, to all intents and purposes, a self-constructed private winter break.) Why not live it all to the full, in so far as you can? ‘Wholehearted or nothing’ has always been the attitude of this club, and long may it continue to be so.
Meanwhile it has been interesting to see how the press have covered the expressions of disappointment in the crowd at the Bridge on Monday as the Manchester United game and our FA Cup retention chances slipped away and as Ross Barkley came on for Mateo Kovacic again. One newspaper seemed to me to get it uniquely wrong when it claimed that, even though Rafa Benitez never found acceptance here during his caretaker-manager phase, ‘he never faced the hostility that has been directed at Sarri.’ Really? I don’t recall Benitez facing anything OTHER than hostility, whereas the explosion of frustration on Monday night seemed to me to be entirely about tactics, and a very different kind of protest from ones that took place in the 2012/13 season.
Certainly it’s not all that long ago (at Brighton in mid-December, actually, was the last time I heard it) that people were singing about the present manager’s fondness for ‘a snout.’ (‘Of that we have no doubt,’ as the song in question rather formally concluded.) Rafa Benitez never had a song like that. Actually, I don’t think any manager did, anywhere. Anyway, on this particular matter, I have nothing to add really, except that this would be a very good time for the team to lift a trophy – and, before that, to keep themselves in with the chance of lifting another one.