Regular columnist Giles Smith was back at the Bridge on Tuesday night and relished the chance to witness the big moments - and the late melee - in the flesh…
The medical forms, the masks, the hand-sanitiser stations, the slow and socially distanced drift into the ground through the specially-erected tented village which faintly resembles a Covid-19 testing site – those things aren’t quite football as we know it, maybe. But the street where we park the car is still the same, the Esso garage on the Kings Road still sells Snickers, and 8000 people at Stamford Bridge turn out to do a very good impression of 40,000 people, noise-wise, so yes, football-going is officially back.
And just in time, frankly, because it’s all-hands-to-the-pumps since that witheringly unfortunate result against ninth-placed Arsenal last week. That unforeseeable reversal automatically refashioned Tuesday night’s game against Leicester as a cup final to follow the Cup Final, with another cup final to come at Aston Villa on Sunday and another in the diary the week after that. I guess we’re used to it raining cup finals round these parts, but even so, that’s an unusually heavy workload for a young side, so it’s good that that a few of us have been in a position to get in the ground these past couple of games, roll up our sleeves and do our bit.
It didn’t quite work out at Wembley, of course, but no blame for that attaches to anyone in the stands on the day - nor on the pitch, actually. Football doesn’t always add up. We know that. It’s one of the reasons we love it. Or sometimes. It’s certainly what makes it unpredictable. Football is a score-based sport in which the score doesn’t always bear much relation to the sport.
For example, it’s the kind of game in which you can have the ball for almost the entire match, make more than twice as many passes as your opponents, hit the post, hit the bar, produce a world class save from their goalkeeper, have a goal ruled out for offside by the thickness of a player’s shirt, and still somehow lose the FA Cup.
It’s also the kind of game in which you can reconvene just three nights later, play with an even greater intensity, dominate the game to an even greater degree, score twice this time, produce another world class save from their goalkeeper (from Mason Mount again, in the first half), have two further goals ruled out by VAR and a manifest penalty claim declined, only for Ayoze Perez to get a single opportunity in the 90th minute, make it 2-2 and leave the week, and possibly even the season, lying in ruins.
Although, of course, this time the worst that could have happened didn’t happen and Perez got it wrong and shoved it over the bar. But the point stands. The margins are so fine, even when, by any reasonable analysis, the margins aren’t fine at all. And this is the anxiety we all live with pretty much every time a game kicks off.
And then there’s the additional random element of the ‘decision that doesn’t go for you.’ On Tuesday, in a big moment for collectors of novelty episodes in game officiation, Timo Werner was penalised for being tripped over in the Leicester penalty area. Worrying memories, in a way, of the overlooked handball in the build-up to Leicester’s goal at Wembley. What happened to that? Swept under history’s carpet, it seems, by Youri Tieleman’s swaggering shot.
And then, three nights later, Timo gets his ankle kicked out from under him and the referee awards a free-kick against him for… I don’t know: wearing a loud shirt in a built-up area? If only there were some kind of video review system that one could consult in moments of clear and obvious error such as those. I’m just thinking off the top of my head here – but it could be a room somewhere with screens in, or something, where specially appointed officials could look at replays from different angles and then send their corrective verdicts down the line to the ref on the pitch.
But no. That would be ridiculous. Leicester took their free-kick and on we went.
Something else about football: we had 17 shots in the course of Tuesday’s game, and 15 of them were from inside the penalty area. And then, for all the beautiful approach play and the swift interchanges through midfield, your central defender makes an absolute monster of himself at a corner and ends up scoring with his thigh. (Incidentally, that was Rudiger’s sixth Premier League goal, and, intriguingly, half of them have been scored against Leicester, almost as though it were personal or something, though surely it can’t be.
But this, again, is why we go. Indeed, I know we’ve seen more elegant moments, but the sight of Rudi on Tuesday surging over the halfway line, pulling off a roulette, losing the ball and then regaining it, all in one uncompromisingly muscular 10-second passage of play, is probably my highlight of the 2020-21 season and I consider myself privileged to have been there to see it.
As someone who was looking down on it from the East Stand, I also have some thoughts to offer on the multi-player argy-bargy that blew up near the game’s end. It seemed to me that the trouble was caused by people trying to stop the trouble. That’s pretty typical, when you think about it. Normally at such times there are only two people actually involved in something that might more or less qualify for the term ‘altercation’, and the rest of the problem arises from the 20 or so other people rushing up to stop them, pull them apart, and then pull away other people who have also rushed up to stop the original two, etc.
In other words, it’s only when people run in to try and defuse the situation that these situations explode. That’s when things boil over and become unmanageable: when the peacemakers get involved.
It strikes me that if peace-making were itself strictly a yellow-card offence, in the way that hauling a player back in the natural course of the game gets you booked, we would see it done a lot less. But until the game has the courage to clamp down on peace-makers, these somewhat ugly and unnecessary scenes will only continue to be seen. Get tough on peace-making, would be my message. It’s a blight.
As for results elsewhere, none of them so far has been as helpful as one hoped with regard to our immediate project, but looking longer-term maybe a couple of them have been. For instance, I thought you needed to be us to beat Manchester City these days. But what do I know? It turns out that sometimes you only need to be Brighton. Shipping six goals in two games, to teams respectively one place and three places above the relegation zone, seems a slightly unconventional way to be doing the build-up to a Champions League final and I’m sure anxiety will now be rippling through City like.. well, like Brighton’s Leandro Trossard through their defence on Tuesday night.
Well, let’s hope so, anyway. Two more finals to go.