Ahead of today’s hosting of the Reds in a knockout tie to be decided on the night, former Blue Pat Nevin first looks back at the weekend game at which he was present, before speculating on possible team selections to be made by Frank Lampard and Jurgen Klopp…
While absolutely not wanting to be offensive, Bournemouth is probably the ‘sweetest’ little ground in the Premier League. Carrow Road in Norwich might consider itself a nice friendly place too, but that little stadium nestled down there on the South Coast is a throwback to an age that seems to be quickly fading away in the Premier League era.
Before the game I wandered into the Chelsea dressing rooms and yes, there were still ‘pegs’ above the ‘benches’ where you could hang your jacket/coat/ hoodie or tracksuit top.
The people of AFC Bournemouth were incredibly welcoming as well, but Eddie Howe’s men didn’t carry the theme on when the whistle blew for Saturday’s game by being annoyingly good and ultra-positive for the first 10 minutes. We could have been 2-0 down at least by the time we got any sort of foothold in the game. I say game, in fact it seemed less like a game and more like a series of metaphors for our entire season.
We have blown hot and cold from the start of the campaign just as the weather did at Bournemouth. One minute there was warming sunshine with an eerie stillness in the air, seconds later, the rain felt like someone above was throwing buckets of water horizontally at the players. It was horrible and close to unplayable at times, but only for a few minutes then it was back to something approaching normal again, whatever normal is in Bournemouth.
It wasn’t just the weather that was mirroring our season, it was the game itself. At the start of both halves we were under the cosh and struggling to get out of our own 18-yard box, but for most of the rest of the game we were utterly dominant. As usual all the statistics such as possession and shots on target were heavily weighted in our favour but yet again we didn’t get the three points that we almost certainly deserved over the piece.
Just to underline that this weekend was like our season in microcosm, of course we are disappointed at not getting the three points, but we still have a three-point gap between ourselves and the other Champions League chasers. At the start of the season just about any Chelsea fan would have bitten your hand off to be in this position with 10 games to go in the league. We played home and away in the past two Premier League games, won the home game and got a point on the road. If you strip out everything else, that is roughly what will be needed to secure fourth place this season.
Trying to figure out who is going to get points from where is impossible now, with the general exception of tonight’s opponents Liverpool. Their run has been extraordinary, even if the turn of the year has seen something of a dip in comparison to how they had been performing before. They moved from effervescent to efficient but in some ways that was just as impressive considering the stresses placed on a squad that is fairly light in comparison with others in the league.
This weekend at Watford witnessed the wheels wobble for the first time this season. On top of the loss at Atletico Madrid and the match against West Ham last Monday, there are signs the invincibility cloak is slipping. I was at that game against West Ham and apart from being a fine football match, it was clear that David Moyes had told his team to stand toe to toe with the champions elect. It was a brave move and although you could say he had nothing to lose, I reckon he spotted a little chink of weariness in the Anfield outfit and decided to go for it. It very nearly worked, and it showed the way for Watford and maybe even for us tonight. Liverpool won 3-2, but it took a late comeback as well as a good few missed chances by the Hammers to secure those points.
I reckon Jurgen Klopp has more questions on his mind than Frank has for this one. Chelsea will probably freshen up a few faces and rest one or two legs after an intense period of games. Liverpool on the other hand have to consider whether some major star names need serious rest, with the league still to be tied up and the Champions League match against Atleti at Anfield around the corner, the most important game of the season currently printed in their fixture list.
Will they field a second string 11? It must be a temptation. In the FA Cup they generally have, even against Everton, but this is the business end of the tournament so of course he will put out as strong a side as he feels is sensible.
We can’t do much about Liverpool’s selection policy, but Frank will be enjoying the new lease of life from a few players. Olivier Giroud is leading the line fantastically well after his time on the bench and it must be said that since his broken nose and new face mask, Andreas Christensen has looked a different player. Well he does look different, everyone does when they wear a mask, but you know what I mean. He has looked strong, fit, confident and regarding his pace in difficult situations, he appears to have got that effortless overdrive back.The main man who has come back with a vengeance is of course Marcus Alonso. The two goals at the weekend and his customary howitzer against Spurs were all superb and vital for points, but he also nearly scored the winner at Bournemouth and has hit the post with a free-kick as well. He has suffered not necessarily from squad rotation like many others, but from being particularly specialist as a wing-back when we haven’t always played with wing-backs this season. Reece James’ emergence has also limited his chances as Azpi moved over to the left to make it a three-way fight between Marcos, Cesar and Emerson.
This might be the hardest decision that Frank will make tonight, who to play in the left defensive area? That usually isn’t a big problem for a coach, it is ‘only’ left-back after all, but it is unusually important. Marcos is on fire in front of goal just now, Azpi has also been a danger up the field this season and Emerson is possibly the most athletic of them all (and whoever plays may have Mo Salah to deal with tonight). Frank and Jody will be thinking about this position long and hard throughout the day.
For all the personnel decisions, tonight it comes down to the fact that it is Chelsea versus Liverpool, in the latter stages of the FA Cup, our best chance of silverware this season and we will throw everything at this game. This is the breakthrough tie, if you get through this round, you can really start thinking about Wembley. It would be great to go back up there, somehow a season without Chelsea playing at least one game at the national stadium doesn’t seem right these days. We might have been spoiled in this era but what is wrong with Chelsea fans being spoiled now and again.
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