With numbers heading in the right direction for his football team and for some counts in the wider world, Chelsea fan and columnist Giles Smith reviews a statistically dominant derby win, playing ‘away’ in the Champions League, and why you might want to give a gift to the Tottenham fan in your life…
A quick update on the situation as it stands, then. To date, just over 13 million people in the UK have received a dose of vaccine, including 90 percent of the over-70s and care home residents, as well as an encouraging number in other vulnerable categories. And Chelsea under new management are unbeaten in four, have taken 10 points from the available 12 and have risen to fifth, a point behind Liverpool. I’m sure we’d all like to congratulate both the NHS and Thomas Tuchel on the efficiency of that initial roll-out and the hope it extends, if continued, to all of us for a much brighter spring.
Let’s face it, in this pandemic plagued season, our team was in the vulnerable category for a while there or certainly suffering a few symptoms, including fatigue, mild disorientation and a failure to take even a point off the weakest Arsenal team in living memory (also known as ‘loss of taste’).
But now look at it: apparently vaccinated, or certainly given a shot of some kind - humming around with purpose and genuine menace, achieving three wins on the bounce and yet to concede a goal in more than six hours of football.
Or, at least, nobody from the opposition has scored one yet. It was Antonio Rudiger, of course, who generously made things more interesting than they really needed to be at Sheffield United at the weekend, and no real matter about that. The history of the game suggests that if you can keep your goals-conceded down exclusively to unforced own-goals, you won’t go too far wrong.
And let’s just take a moment to go back seven days and dwell in particular on that spectacularly one-sided Premier League victory over a puzzlingly static Tottenham last Thursday. You can use stats to tell you anything, people like to say. Not this time. You can’t use any available stats to tell you that Tottenham weren’t utterly packed into a small cardboard box and stored away in a cupboard somewhere deep in their shiny stadium this time a week ago.
Just to pick out a few numbers at random, in that almost unprecedentedly one-way 90 minutes, we had 18 shots to Tottenham’s seven, 39 touches inside the box to Tottenham’s 13, 628 passes to Tottenham’s 453 and 337 passes in the opposition’s half, by comparison with Tottenham’s 198. Even in a pandemic-ridden world which has largely collapsed the concept of home advantage (and in a week when ours was merely the seventh away win out of the round of 10 Premier League games played over that midweek), this was a witheringly dominant performance by a visiting side.
And it was also, as you probably noticed, the cue to celebrate our 31st Premier League victory over Tottenham, which apparently would be the time for gifts in ebony, were this a wedding anniversary rather than an unrivalled domination of a top-flight opponent, although other traditions (an extensive and academically rigorous investigation of Wikipedia informs me) suggest that in certain cultures an exchange of timepieces would be considered appropriate upon reaching 31. Try and arrange that, maybe, with the Tottenham fan closest to you.
As well as an encouraging accumulation of points, this was also the week which saw the unprecedented relocation of the away leg of our Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid, which, we learned, will now be obliged to take place in Bucharest, Romania, on account of restrictions preventing UK residents from entering Spain.
That’s a shame, obviously, from the point of view of the competition’s integrity, although, of course, a fat lot of difference it will make to us supporters personally. Whether the tie ends up in Oslo, Naples, or on Astroturf on the top deck of a cruise ship circling the Greek islands, none of us will be going. I was reflecting ruefully last night on some of the great and romantic cities I have been fortunate enough to visit in the course of following Chelsea. Places like Paris, Berlin, Marseille, Turin, and even Cardiff. It set me casting my mind back to dimly remembered things like aeroplanes and train travel – that golden age, almost forgotten, when the far horizon wasn’t your mud-churned local park. Will it ever return? Well, yes, I guess, if we keep on vaccinating. But sometimes you wonder – and especially while stomping around your mud-churned local park.
Anyway, one sees the need to shift the tie, in the circumstances. Nevertheless, there’s a compelling argument that, in this pandemic phase, pretty much any ground counts as a neutral ground, stadiums currently lacking the little thing that, when push comes to shove, makes them home – namely, us. Like that, wouldn’t it make equal sense to play both ties at Stamford Bridge? Or just reduce it to the one tie? Just a suggestion.
Anyway, tonight we find ourselves preparing once again for Thursday night football – not something any self-respecting team or its fans wants to make a habit of, but at this point I guess we’ll take what we’re given. This time it’s an FA Cup fifth round tie at Barnsley that gets shunted to the least fashionable football night of the week.
And once again, I find my mind spinning helplessly back to 1996 and an almost equidistant midweek drive north (give or take 10 miles) to Grimsby, at exactly this stage in the competition, at almost exactly this time in the year. There, for a 350-mile round trip, we were rewarded with a 0-0 draw. Again, golden times. What we’d all give now to be heading off for a 0-0 draw in Grimsby, or preferably something a bit more impressive in Barnsley – something closer, say, to the 4-1 win in the replay.
Hang on, though: dreaming of Grimsby? This pandemic really has been going on too long.