It is a fair old hike to Krasnodar - just the 4200 miles there and back. The next stop would be Tbilisi and then Baku after that. There are a few Chelsea fans who well remember how long that flight to Baku was, even if the flight back seemed so much quicker after beating Arsenal and winning the Europa League. In the middle of a very tough run of games it is, shall we say, suboptimal at best to have to go that far so soon after the grind against Manchester United.
That is the deal in the Champions League, and in the end everybody is just pleased that football can still be played at the elite level, but it doesn’t mean it is always going to be easy fitting everything in. The starting XI for this one will take a great deal of thought from Frank. Having drawn with Sevilla, three points would be very handy here, but he has to be careful not to push players too far this early in the season.
I am sure he will want as many youthful, energetic and tireless legs on the field as possible, so I will not be surprised if the young guns such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount are used from the start. Then of course there are the likes of Mateo Kovacic, who could really do with another 90 minutes pretty soon. He should also have plenty of energy to spare. It doesn’t matter that the lads will be in the most comfortable airplane in the skies, travelling is tiring, especially when it involves crossing time zones.
Maybe everyone would feel a little bit bouncier had we grabbed all three points at Old Trafford, but even though a draw was a fair result, the failure to award a penalty to Cesar Azpilicueta was a long way from being fair. The rules for what is and isn’t a penalty seem to change most weeks at the moment, but I am sure that at no time has it stated you need three falls and a submission for a penalty to be awarded. It really did look much closer to wrestling than football, and it is beyond me that the Video Assistant Referee came to the same conclusion as the on-field referee. That is not a problem with the VAR system itself, that is basic human error.
Sometimes it seems that the sports get mixed up a bit at some of these big grounds. Forget the wrestling; I recall Stevie Nichol rugby tackling me in the box in front of the Kop at Anfield when I was through one-on-one and the ref didn’t have the cojones to point to the spot. You just know if the exact same thing happened up the other end, the officials would almost swallow their whistles trying to get them to their mouths quickly enough to blow for the pen. Fortunately, I got a late equaliser that day, so not all was lost.
It is all water under the bridge now, but that one on Saturday will rankle for a while. Hopefully we will fare better in the fairness stakes over in Russia, but whatever the case, do not expect it to be easy. Player for player we should be way ahead of them, but the travelling and the general circumstances on the eastern edge of the continent have to be factored into the mix.
The players should however enjoy the new scenery. I loved going to new grounds, especially in far-flung exotic places, and I still do in my current job in the media. The Champions League does tend to throw up the same places most of the time, so Krasnodar would have been great to visit. However, Covid has put a stop to that for most of us for the time being.
I was in Russia for the World Cup and I must have been feeling contemplative about what was a great trip to a fabulous part of the world. Surely Krasnodar must be quite close to the places I had been back in 2018? Actually, no, Samara and Kazan are both well over 1000 kilometres away. I remember now, even travelling within that giant country is exhausting, never mind travelling the entire breadth of it for a Wednesday night match.
Maybe it is a good thing that we have finally learned how to play a cagier game over the last two outings. To succeed in Europe at the top level, you really must be clever and know when to sit back and play on the break. Rest, even during some games, is sensible. This is a mostly new team Frank has assembled, but over the years Chelsea fans have grown used to understanding what is needed in these ties, and it isn’t always pretty.
Frank will look into his own past and all those far-flung adventures he had before he decides on how he will approach it. There is now also the option of a 3-4-3, which we hadn’t played for quite some time, and that might well be a temptation to start with here.
I couldn’t be sure of any more than about five of our starting line-up for this one, but that is probably a good thing. The opposition will not know either until the last minute so it could scupper their prep.
In fact, there is a good deal of uncertainty that surrounds the entire fixture as Krasnodar are far from being a well-recognised team in the Champions League, and they made five outfield changes in their last two games. A trip into the unknown. How very unusual and very exciting.