Columnist

Giles Smith: Why Ben Chilwell compares with George Best and how Chelsea followed the textbook

Fresh from seeing his team establish an advantage in our Champions League quarter-final, columnist Giles Smith explains the West Brom defeat that proceeded it and finds it hard to pick between the two goals against Porto, as he shares his weekly fan’s-eye view…


It must be one of the oldest and most trusted pieces of wisdom in football: whenever you go down to 10 men and lose 2-5 in a shocker at home to West Brom, then the important thing is to make sure you always go out and get two goals and keep a clean sheet in your subsequent Champions League quarter-final leg against Porto.

And lo and behold, that’s exactly what this team of ours did. The textbook response to that setback. Straight out of the coaching manual. Huge congratulations to them.

It’s hard to decide what was more delightful to witness in the middle of it all: the sight of Mason Mount, for the first goal, evoking Johan Cruyff by spinning into a hole on the pitch that hadn’t existed a split second earlier before he created it; or the sight of the two touches that took Ben Chilwell past the Porto goalkeeper to set himself up for that tap-in for the second – evocative, as an enthused fellow supporter instantly pointed out to me via text, of George Best in 1968, against Benfica at Wembley. True, Chilwell hadn’t been cynically hacked down about 643 times in the previous 92 minutes, but that’s a detail. It was breath-taking improvisation of a similar order.

And what a superb advantage to be taking into the home leg. Because just wait until we get them back to the Bridge, with 40,000 up-for-it home fans wedged in tight and producing the white-hot atmosphere that only a midweek game in Europe truly… oh.

Well, okay: wait until we get them back to Seville again, in front of nobody. Whatever. The away goals still count. Kind of. (Except not really. Not at 2-0. They’re basically just… goals in this circumstance. We will categorically now not being winning this tie on away goals, whatever everyone on the telly kept suggesting. Only Porto can now win this tie on away goals. One of those quirks of the competition.)

And the great thing is, the players now get a whole week off before the second leg because we’ve been knocked out of the FA Cup and don’t have a game at the weekend. Which I didn’t know until the commentator on the television last night broke the good news, but it’s got to be an advantage, hasn’t it?

Hang on a moment, though: we haven’t actually been knocked out of the FA Cup, have we? We’re still in there, and facing Manchester City in the semi-final in just over a week. And we haven’t got the weekend off because, according to the fixture list, we’re playing Crystal Palace away from home on Sunday.

Ah, well. I’m actually rather heartened to think that a commentator should be so buoyed up by the sight of Chelsea establishing a decent lead in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final that they briefly lose the plot. Makes them relatable.

Also I’m relieved that we don’t have anything resembling a break ahead of us at this juncture. We saw what happened the last time we had a pause inflicted on us, by the need for international football, and it didn’t end terribly well. Better in these circumstances to get back out there as quickly as possible, in my view.

After all, it’s one of the other oldest and most trusted pieces of football wisdom: when you’ve lost 2-5 at home to West Brom, and you’ve immediately corrected it by scoring two goals in your subsequent Champions League quarter-final leg against Porto, then the thing you always have to do is capitalise on that momentum in your very next Premier League game away at Crystal Palace. So let’s get out there and do it by the book all over again.

Still baffled by last Saturday? Well, so am I, I guess. But with a view to making it comprehensible, here are my Top Five Things To Blame for that dismal 2-5 defeat at home to a team managed by Sam Allardyce. You’ll have your own list, I’m sure, but here, in my opinion, are the five key liabilities which arrived in a perfect storm to bring about the unthinkable.

One: Gareth Southgate. By insisting on playing Mason Mount in not one, not two, but all three of England’s games during the international break, the England manager effectively relegated him to the bench for our game against West Brom. Not helpful. Thomas Tuchel then had to scramble him for the second half, but by that point most of the damage was done.

Two: The whole concept of international breaks. Have you ever seen a bunch of players who looked more like they had just got off a variety of planes to a variety of far-flung destinations and were still trying to remember which country they were in? And why should that be? It’s not complicated. It’s because those players had just got off a variety of planes to a variety of far-flung destinations and were still trying to remember which country they were in. Why are we still unreasonably obliging players to do this in the middle of a league season when there are truly important outcomes still to be finalised, and when we’ve got a home game the following weekend against a team managed by Sam Allardyce?

Three: Lunchtime kick-offs. You can never trust them. They always feel slightly random. It’s like subtly introducing an ice rink into the game. 12.30pm is no time to be kicking off a football match. If God had intended football to be played at lunchtime, he wouldn’t have put lunchtime there. Point proved.

Four: The pandemic. That performance and that result last Saturday are never happening with a crowd in the ground. I’m sorry. They just simply never are.

Five: The Manager of the Month award. Congratulations, obviously, to Thomas Tuchel, and richly deserved. But we all know what generally happens next. The Manger of the Month award is a three-dimensional, silver-plated, real world embodiment of ‘commentator's curse', a masterclass in dramatic irony, and almost as efficient in that respect as being called-up for the England squad.

But here’s the good news. By my calculations, those five unique individual circumstances cannot collide again between now and May. The matter is concluded, then. We shall have no cause to speak of it again. On with the season. And bring on Palace.
 

More from Chelsea