Columnist

Giles Smith: Historic home game – but we won’t be there!

In his fan’s-view column this week, Giles Smith looks ahead, but from a distance, to what will be a Champions League tie with a difference, and celebrates the form of Chelsea’s (and England’s) Mason Mount…


Even now, as we get the chance to slip loose of some of its tighter restrictions, the pandemic continues to offer us new complications to get our heads around. Like, for instance, the adjusted arrangements for our forthcoming Champions League quarter-final.

Portugal, alas, is currently not straightforwardly receiving visitors from the UK, and the UK is not straightforwardly receiving visitors from Portugal, so both legs, home and away, of our match against Porto will have to decamp to the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan in Seville, which is currently open to visitors from both those places as long as they don’t venture out of their Covid-secure bubbles and go anywhere.

So next week we’ll be away to Porto in Seville. And the week after that we’ll be at home to Porto, also in Seville. Which is kind of confusing, but also historic. Because when that second leg comes round, it will be the first time ever that Chelsea have ever played a competitive home game that wasn’t at Stamford Bridge. T-shirt, anyone? If we were going, we would be able forever afterwards to say that we were there when it happened. But we’re not, so we won’t be.

The bigger pity, though, is that we’ll no longer be in a position to make Porto feel the effect of Fortress Stamford Bridge, as we’re entitled to consider it these days – an empty fortress, but a fortress none the less. The last time a goal was conceded on this ground was 24 January (tip of the hat to Jordan Clark of Luton Town). That’s ten-and-a-half weeks and 11-and-three-quarter hours of football ago. Just to set that in perspective, practically everyone in the country over 50 without underlying conditions has been offered the vaccine since then and it’s hard to know what’s more impressive or what’s more to be celebrated by the nation going forward: the efficiency of the NHS roll-out or the efficiency of Chelsea’s play in their own half under Thomas Tuchel.

A shame, then, that we’re having to forsake that advantage against Porto. Furthermore, if you scrutinise your fixture list you will observe that a game at Stamford Bridge in the second leg would have meant there would have been no foreign travel in the week running up to the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City, who themselves will go into that game having recently eaten aeroplane food (possibly) following a potentially tiring trip to Germany. Those little details can be everything.

Still, on the bright side, the form book also shows that we don’t concede very often at the Estadio Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, either. At least, we didn’t when we were there in the autumn to play Sevilla in the group stages. It’s also the kind of ground, you will recall, where Olivier Giroud has a sensationally good record of going the extra mile and producing, not just perfect hat-tricks, but perfect quad-tricks – right foot, left foot, header, penalty. Indeed, according to my records, Giroud has managed this feat every time he has played in Seville this season. These little details should help the squad overall with the acclimatising.

Then again, when you’ve already been diverted to Romania for a game against Atletico Madrid, I suppose it’s not an especially big leap of the imagination to be playing Porto in Spain. And Seville, one would have to concede, is particularly attractive at this time of year – not that anybody will be seeing any of it. In fact, nobody will be seeing any of it twice, which is doubly a shame. But what can you do?

Meanwhile, in an otherwise quiet week, we’ve had the performances of Mason Mount for England to entertain us and gladden our hearts. Personally, though, I’ve got to say that my heart would have been gladder to see him watching those games from the safety of the bench, or better still, from the comfort and security of his sofa at home, but that’s because I take a highly proprietorial view in this area. As far as I’m concerned, he will always be Chelsea’s Mason Mount before he is England’s Mason Mount and you do have to wonder how well our interests are served by flying our players around Europe to take on the likes of Albania and San Marino when they could plausibly be spending their week doing some light stretching ahead of our crucial upcoming Premier League fixture at home to West Brom.

On the other hand, there’s probably no football match closer to light stretching than a game against San Marino, and even Albania would be hard to categorise as a stiff work-out, no matter how much England tried to make it look like one the other night.

And on the other hand again, maybe a 22-year-old player in the form of his life benefits by playing match after match in swift succession and finds his appetite and energy actually increased by it. Mason himself has certainly seemed to suggest as much, and he should know. And if he gets picked on Saturday and immediately starts carving deep and wide paths through West Brom’s defence, then I’ll have cause to scrub these words and send a letter of gratitude and a spa token to Gareth Southgate with all of our thanks.

Still, another look at your fixture list will confirm that there are no more international breaks between now and the end of the season. It’s a straight and uninterrupted run-in from here, and that’s probably for the best, not just in terms of the team’s all-important momentum but also in terms of the watching fan’s overall well-being. I mean, I can only speak for myself, but when you find yourself tempted to concentrate during a discussion of England’s ‘double pivot’ system, it’s officially clear that lockdown has gone on too long. Is that fair to say?

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