It is hard to imagine a more exciting campaign than last season. It is hard to top being champions of Europe. But this could well be a unique campaign to remember for all sorts of reasons and the fans are in to witness it. The big beasts have all turned up roaring right from the start and it is nothing less than mouthwatering, even if it has only just begun.
A quick look at the top of the Premier League table before we consider Zenit St Petersburg tells a story that is hard to underplay. Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool are crowded at the top, each improved from last season and all scoring well already. The big players haven’t waited around either, whether your name is Romelu Lukaku, Cristiano Ronaldo or Mo Salah, they look as if they fancy a personal battle to grab the headlines every single week. For the lover of elite, top-class football, it is the dream scenario.
For the Blues at the weekend, it was another eye-opener to the improvement of Romelu, now that he has clearly matured into the real deal, to a global level. There was also a team selection that had options that now look endless. Last season I often thought it was getting towards a stage when it didn’t matter which of the 22 players Thomas Tuchel picked, there was enough quality around the club. Well it isn’t getting ‘towards’ that now, we have arrived there.
Maybe at the back of my mind I thought, ’As long as we have either Jorginho or N’Golo Kante as one of the two midfielders, the rest will be fine.’ So what happens? We started with neither of those two world-class players in the engine room, and it still worked pretty well, giving us a half-time lead against a spirited Villa side.
It must be mentioned that Mateo Kovacic had one of the best games of his Chelsea career at the weekend. Every part of his performance was sublime. The through ball for Romelu for the opener was one that Glenn Hoddle, Cesc Fabregas or Andrea Pirlo would have been bursting with pride to have delivered, in their pomp! I could rewind and watch that pass time and again. In fact I did, especially from the camera angle behind the goal. It was precision levels beyond regular mathematics.
Even more obviously there was his goal which was a nod to his energy levels that have continued to improve as he has matured. Tackling didn’t used to be his strongest suit but that has improved markedly, so hopefully this is the start of his finishing also getting to the level that he would like. The thing I like most, with the possible exception of his telepathic understanding with Jorginho (are there two midfielders who work in tandem better in the league?), is his ability to beat players with a shimmy and a dribble.
'So even if the man of the match from the weekend is on the bench, I suspect nobody will complain too much.'
— Pat Nevin
Time and again he takes entire opposition midfields out of the game with a sway of the hips and a cute turn, then he drives into space. If you really think about it, how many players around, apart from a few out-and-out wingers, have this skill in the modern game? It is fewer than you might first think.
If you spend your time in a midfield with the staggering brilliance of Kante and the now-accepted world-class ability to control games that Jorginho has, it would be easy to be overlooked. Right now, you can’t overlook Mateo. He is sparkling alongside the best in the business. Then again, maybe the Chelsea fans always knew, after all he was our player of the year the season before last.
So, will we be able to enjoy watching Kova cruising through the Zenit midfield tonight? Well, he is as likely to be on the bench as he is to start, such is the nature of our squad and the form so many players are showing. The stadium will be buzzing, the Champions League theme will be a joy to hear again with the crowd inside and I think we all feel that the manager is doing an incredible job. So even if the man of the match from the weekend is on the bench, I suspect nobody will complain too much. Maybe a few of us will have a little sigh at most, especially if we are connoisseurs of the art of beating players. We were spoiled for years by having Eden Hazard beating players for fun week in week out, but these days it is a rare and still joyful skill to watch.
In the midst of it all, Saul came into the side and found out what the story is with the Premier League. This is a league like no other and it takes a while to get used to it. To be fair, he would have had a more comfortable debut had it been in a Champions League group game. These are rarely as high a tempo as a team like Aston Villa make it. Still it shouldn’t be a concern, you have to get to know your team-mates, they have to get to know you and your strengths, and crucially you have to understand the style of the league and each team in it.
I remember late in my career going to play up in the Scottish Premier League and expecting it to be an easy transition having played most of my career in the top flight in England. The first three or four games were horrendous as I got to know the style and the specific abilities (and inabilities) of everyone around me. Soon enough it all clicked into place, as it will for Saul. The problem is, as even Billy Gilmour along with many other top players have discovered, getting a place and keeping it in the Chelsea midfield is incredibly hard.
Tonight, there will be changes but with the right attitude and a fair wind, this is a game that we know we can win. Like Villa however there is danger afoot if we are not careful.
There is half a team of Brazilians in the Russian side alongside the likes of Artem Dzyuba, 6ft 6in of quality hefty striker who fears no one. The match-up between him and Toni Rudiger is worth the ticket price alone. His striking partner Sardar Azmoun is an Iranian scorer who is being watched by many top clubs around Europe, so like Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins at the weekend, you ignore them at your peril.
The expectations of the Premier League are sky high, but if you are holders of the trophy with the big ears, the expectations are just as high there too…and that is just the way we like it.
Finally, it was disturbing to see the video on social media of someone at Stamford Bridge aiming sectarian abuse at Villa’s John McGinn at the weekend, but good to see the club acted swiftly and correctly in putting out a statement condemning the behaviour and vowing to take the strongest possible action.