The countdown to the big kick-off is truly on and in his weekly column, Blues legend Pat Nevin looks back at the nature of Chelsea Champions League finals past and forward to what may be key to success this time around…
If only football wasn’t as unpredictable, life would be much less stressful. None of us expected that a defeat to Aston Villa would still see Chelsea through to the Champions League for next season. I am not even sure if we were lucky or unlucky this week. A league campaign is what you do over the season, so we are rightfully in fourth place on that score. But losing to Arsenal and Villa and still getting there does mean there was some good fortune involved.
On the other hand, I do believe we were the better team in those two games as well as the other league tie we won against Leicester at home in the run-in. So, are we really lucky in the widest sense, is it fair we got there in the end? I reckon so, but I guess it doesn’t matter because when that draw goes ahead we can simply enjoy the thought of another season at the top table in Europe.
This final wobble will have told Thomas Tuchel a few things. More than anything else, we will have to be able to score a bigger percentage of chances when we get them if we are going to challenge in the Premier League going forward, that is unarguable. He will have this dilemma in the back of his mind to sort out before the summer ends but in the meantime, there is the small matter of Manchester City in Porto in the Champions League final.
Fine margins in finals
When we look at our Champions League history, these final stages have been incredible and one thing is for sure, it is rarely if ever predictable. I was fairly confident in Moscow back in 2008 when we faced Manchester United and it is hard to imagine coming much closer to winning the trophy than we did that night. The team was strong, maybe the strongest side of our three finals, including the one coming up, but it wasn’t to be. Lady luck was certainly not on our side that night, just ask JT!
I’ll be brutally honest and admit that against Bayern Munich at the Allianz in 2012, I was much more on the side of hopeful than expectant. With two left-backs playing and no John Terry, it was a long shot but we did it on a magical night, though once again it was another incredibly close call. It shows how tight the margins almost always are at this level.
Even in the semi-finals over the years it has been the same. Against Liverpool twice, losing on penalties and before that, the single ‘goal’ at Anfield. Those near misses were as close as you can get. Monaco and Atletico Madrid were huge disappointments in semi-finals, but it took a long time to recover from Iniesta’s late winner at the Bridge that sunk for us against Barcelona, with a little help from the referee in 2009. I have talked to the ref from that night and he has openly admitted he had a ‘bad game’. Really? You shock me!
The point is the margin between glory and despair can be super-slim and can even be a matter of luck. We somehow have to make our own luck in Porto and that means the chances have to be converted. We might have come close to cruising it in retrospect against Real Madrid in the semi-finals, but we will not get as many chances against Pep Guardiola’s side on Saturday as we did against Zinedine Zidane’s a month ago. We must be ruthless, there are plenty on the other side who will be ruthless in front of goal.
'Like every one of you, I can’t wait'
— Pat Nevin
For us to bring this trophy back to Stamford Bridge, the defence will need to be back to its meanest, tightest and most-organized best. Losing two goals against Aston Villa was unusual to the point of being weird. The first was undoubtedly a pure fluke, a mishit against the run of play. The second was an unnecessary penalty so it isn’t actually a case of the defence suddenly falling apart. The backline has to be confident that nothing has materially changed under Thomas Tuchel in this area. Odd things just happen. What we cannot allow is silly mistakes, such as bad pass-backs!
Manipulating the game
There are some huge calls in terms of personnel for the manager, with the goalkeeping situation not as obvious as it was a week ago. Kepa may start and he might have to have a superb night but he is capable of that.
The other question is regarding systems. We have played 3-4-3, or slightly adapted versions of it most of the time, but when we played closer to a 3-5-2 against Real Madrid it was devastating. With two pacy players up front, and that could be Havertz, Werner or Pulisic, we could really mess with Pep’s plans. That partly depends on the fitness of N’Golo Kante but the biggest positive on our side is the two wins out of two we have had over City since Tuchel arrived.
City do have a weakness; they defend very high and often leave spaces in behind and our coaching staff will know this. Somehow, we have to manipulate the game to use that area behind their defence well. They are far from terrible, but there is a little shaft of light to follow if we can manage it. We are undoubtedly the underdogs this time but there isn’t a great deal in it, particularly in a one-off game.
It is far from the season ending we expected six months ago. In fact it probably isn’t what some expected six games ago, but it can still be one of the greatest seasons in the club’s history. In a strange season like this, one that Spurs help us get Champions League football on the last day, absolutely anything can and probably will happen. Like every one of you, I can’t wait for Saturday.
Quiz competition time
Last week’s quiz was to name five players who played for Chelsea and Leicester and the answers sent in are below. The lucky winner among many entrants who got the question correct, who has been chosen at random to win a copy of my new book, The Accidental Footballer, is Ian Newing from Hampshire.
This week to win a copy of the same title that has just knocked Arsene Wenger from top spot on the Amazon Sports book chart as I write (that was pleasing), could you answer this one. Who has played most Champions League career games for Chelsea?*
Answers as ever to me at email@example.com and good luck with that and to the team who can become number one in Europe later in the week. That definitely beats being top of the book sales charts!
Chelsea and Leicester players: Alan Birchenall, Jeffrey Bruma, Ben Chilwell, Danny Drinkwater, Robert Huth, Muzzy Izzet, N'Golo Kante, Steve Kember, Chris Garland, Dennis Rofe, Mark Schwarzer, Frank Sinclair, David Speedie, Patrick van Aanholt, David Webb, Keith Weller and Dennis Wise.
Pat Nevin will be part of the Matchday Live show on our platforms on Saturday, starting at 6.30pm, as well as reporting from Porto during live training the evening before at 6pm.
* Competition T&Cs
• Entrants must be 16 or over. Residents of Indonesia, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam are excluded.
• The competition opens at 4.00AM on 25/05/2021 (UK time) and closes at 12.01PM on 30/05/2021 (UK time)
• The prize is one copy of the book ‘The Accidental Footballer’ by Pat Nevin.
• Full T&Cs apply