Giles Smith: Making the most of empty Stamford Bridge

As Blues supporters everywhere bask in the success of last night’s victory over Atletico, columnist Giles Smith spotted some special moments during the contest with the Spaniards, and he looks ahead to the draw for the next round plus the continuing FA Cup campaign, from a fan’s point of view…

Positives of the behind-closed-doors pandemic era? Simple. There haven’t been any. Until last night, that is. Last night we saw the first of them.

Because let’s be clear, in a full ground, unaffected by a global health emergency, Thiago Silva, in civvies, would not have had an entire staircase in the East Stand lower tier on which to stand and conduct play in the vital closing moments of the second half, nor would the cameras have been able to pick him out quite so magnificently while he did so.

Similarly the celebrations of Emerson’s tie-sealing goal involving Thiago Silva, joined in a bouncing huddle by Jorginho and Mason Mount, would have had less, or possibly even no space in which to unfold and be seen on national and international television.

Then there was the sending off of Atletico’s Stefan Savic. In a Covid-free world with no need for temporary, socially distanced visitors changing facilities, Savic would have been off down the tunnel and out of sight before one had even finished waving. As it was, his long march back to the health club involved him travelling half the length of the touchline before taking him, somehow poignantly, past the lawn mowers and other equipment in the gloaming of the service passage at the junction of the East Stand and the Matthew Harding. You love to see it.

Now, believe me, without wishing in any way to seem ungrateful for their service in a time of crisis, I’m as desperate as anyone to be experiencing nights like Wednesday in the company of someone other than Darren Fletcher and Steve McManaman of BT Sport. And not being there while Chelsea are ripping their way through the best team in Spain and advancing to the pointy end of the Champions League is a special kind of agony. Yet it can’t be denied that the loss to our collective history of those utterly life-enhancing scenes would have been enormous. They were superb viewing on a night that was rich with it.

So, tactics for the draw tomorrow? I can see the pull of wanting to come out opposite the weakest team on the list – which might or might not be an English club. But that’s lily-livered talk. It’s the sharp end of the Champions League, for heaven’s sake. This is not the time to be shooting fish in a barrel or picking off lame ducks. Isn’t the whole point to be measuring yourself against the very best?

Also, ‘Battles of Britain’? That’s not why we’re here. We can get that at home.

So fingers crossed we avoid anyone English. But apart from that, let’s take what comes and feel bold about it.

Form, clearly, is not our problem at this juncture. After 13 games under the management of Thomas Tuchel, not only is the team unbeaten but 11 of those games have resulted in clean sheets, despite the absence through injury or illness of arguably key defensive personnel along the way, and still the only player to score against us in more than 19 and a half hours of football who wasn’t a Chelsea player at the time is Takumi Minamino of Southampton.

True, it would have been nice to have gone just a little further against Leeds last weekend and scored at the other end, but you can’t have everything. Incidentally, it would, of course, be beneath a website column of the stature of this one to complain about the quality of the pitch at Elland Road last Sunday, or to suggest that a surface which seemed to have hosted both a fun fair and a traction engine festival within a few hours of kick-off in any way contributed to the unaccountable and unfortunate dropping of two points on that occasion.

After all, as everybody knows, the pitch is the same for both sides, both the one that relies on a slick and speedy interchange of close and carefully adjusted passes across the grass, and the other one.

So never mind any of that. The more important point is that by the time West Ham had finished losing to Manchester United and Tottenham had finished losing to Arsenal and Everton had finished losing to Burnley, our overall position in relation to the nearest trailing contenders for the top four had improved by one point over the course of the weekend, so no complaints ultimately. And, without wishing to encourage complacency, the immediate future for further point-gathering looks promising, with games at home to West Brom (current league position 19th), away to Crystal Palace (current league position 11th, and at home to Brighton (current league position 16th).

Before that, though, there’s the first in what is now an upcoming series of quarter-finals, against Sheffield United in the FA Cup on Sunday lunchtime, with a big day out at Wembley at stake for the players, if not for us. That said, there seems to be a scheme to have 20,000 fans in place for the FA Cup final on 15 May as a tentative trial for the return of crowds to football, so let’s hope we stick around and go, not one, but two rounds further, because it’s the best chance that most of us have to witness a football match this side of August.

Also, at nearly every other stadium in English football you would be worried that a quarter-full ground would strip the occasion of atmosphere and soul. But at Wembley it’s hard to imagine it making that much difference, so it’s very much the right place for the experiment.

Fingers crossed, then. Remember witnessing football matches? It was quite good fun, wasn’t it? It would be nice to think it might be possible again some day. Despite the upsides of the current way of doing things.

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