Going online the other day to secure my seat for the FA Cup fifth round tie against Liverpool, I found myself surveying the glittering vista of home games against historic rivals that stretches ahead of us over the coming month – a pearly string of high-value Stamford Bridge occasions with that little bit extra on them. And the truth is, I’m struggling to remember a run of home fixtures quite like it.
After all, Liverpool (whom we’re always pleased to see) turn up in our living room at the end of a line of guests that starts with Manchester United (ditto) next Monday, and extends on through Tottenham Hotspur (ditto, and then some) to Bayern Munich.
OK, as historic jousting partners go, Bayern are a slightly less hot prospect than the rest of this company. Nevertheless, the Champions League final in 2012 and the Super Cup in Prague in 2013… well, as one so often tries to explain to Liverpool fans, sometimes a short history can be richer than a long history. So we’re counting them in.
Moreover, given that the last visitors to our humble corner of west London were Arsenal, it’s clear that, in this stretch of five consecutive home fixtures, we’re holding what poker players would doubtless recognise immediately as a Royal Flush for this kind of thing. You’ve got all the big picture cards in that hand, rival-wise. And Arsenal. Indeed, we’re only really missing Leeds. But then that’s been the case for longer than many of us can even remember.
Even after that, the intensity of the rivalry might de-pressurise slightly, but the quality of the guests doesn’t much relent. In the home game that follows the Liverpool cup tie, we’ll be laying a table here at Stamford Bridge for Everton, which would ordinarily feel like a bit of a falling-off, coming after all that other stuff, except that this time we’ll be enjoying the opportunity to welcome back our former manager Carlo Ancelotti, who is forever to be revered.
And after that we’ll be polishing the glasses for Manchester City, who, though clearly not the attention-magnet that they were last season, are hardly slouches, even now. So, ‘high-end hosting’ doesn’t begin to describe it over the next few weeks. Really, it’s not until we play Watford on 11 April that we can think about using the cheaper china and the non-matching cutlery again.
Given what’s coming, it’s probably no bad thing that we’ve all had a bit of a rest to gather some breath, courtesy of the Premier League and its new statutory, like-it-or-lump-it winter holiday policy. On the whole this column doesn’t take kindly to people drilling holes in the season, because that’s what the summer is for. But maybe with United, Spurs, Liverpool and Bayern coming up, we’ll see reason and make a quiet exception this time.
Of course, a week ago in this space we were rejoicing at the fact that our club was official Premier League Player Break Champions 2019-20 – the inaugural year of the competition - on the grounds that the gap between our fixtures created by this new interlude was longer by five hours than Manchester United’s, who were runners-up on 16 days. We were the Player Break kings. Nobody was going to be Player Breaking like we were going to be Player Breaking.
But then Storm Ciara struck on Saturday and wiped out Manchester City’s game against West Ham, and now our record in the competition is being called into question again. Assuming that City v. West Ham goes ahead on the rescheduled date of 19 February (and who knows? Storm Dennis and the gods of comedy may yet have something to say about that), City will be making their first appearance for 17 days, and West Ham will be making their first appearance for a stonking 18 days.
Obviously, then, the big question doing the rounds among the pundits this week is: should the Player Break title be taken away from us after a review and re-awarded to West Ham?
The answer, of course, is no. For one thing, West Ham will have had to prepare and travel to last weekend’s game, so they will have felt no benefit, only a badly enervating sense of frustration in keeping with the rest of their season. For another, and more importantly, you can’t go meddling retrospectively with decisions that have already been made and trying to ‘put history right’ on the basis of pedantic, hair-splitting post-rationalisations. We get quite enough of that with VAR, thank you very much.
City, incidentally, will now play six times in 19 days at the end of this month and the beginning of the next, and will almost certainly now find themselves the subject of a Channel 5 horror doc entitled, ‘When Player Breaks Go Wrong.’ We can breathe a sigh of relief because, by comparison, we seem to have got off lightly – which is surely the whole point of a Player Break.