In his column this week, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin looks at the lay of the land in the Premier League and Champions League, previews tonight’s game and tries to make sense of our glut of attacking options…
One of the most tempting things to do in football is to make snap judgements, but they regularly leave you with half a dozen eggs on your face. I remember thinking after the Man City game that they were definitely the team to beat and still strong favourites to win the Premier League title. After the results at the weekend, it was seriously tempting to see the Blues as just as strong favourites for the league, but I certainly will not be saying that out loud.
Things can and do change quickly in football. After capitulating against Liverpool, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked like he would be ‘sacked in the morning.’ After beating Spurs a week later, he is once more hanging on. He has survived before and he could do it again.
The way Chelsea are playing right now it is clear we are capable of going all the way. I am not saying we will, but we are certainly capable of doing it. There are many reasons for this positivity, but oddly enough even though the team is leading the Premier League, and currently in a run of six wins in six games and a running aggregate of 20-2, my biggest reason for expecting success is that I still think this group might be capable of improving.
It is actually difficult to make a case for defensive improvement at the moment. If you are giving away so few goals and so few chances, there isn’t even the hint of a concern there yet. However, the glut of goals from all over the team underlines the single-goal victories we had got used to maybe shouldn’t be the norm anymore. We have shown we can score more goals and have only just started to do so.
Tonight is a fabulous opportunity to keep that high-tempo, high-scoring run going. It is not that Malmo are hopeless, but they surely must have a go at us because of their position in the group. So, there should be a bit of space to break into and not a mass of defenders facing the team every time we attack, the way there were for large parts of the game against Newcastle. Having 80 per cent of the possession away from home against any side in the Premier League is incredible, even if they are down the wrong end of the table. The downside was that it took a while to break through because of that.
Once again, when you look at the Chelsea team at Newcastle, that second-half midfield had no Kovacic, Kante or Mount, yet it was still miles too strong for the Magpies. Whatever team is chosen tonight, it is clear that playing well and at the pace Thomas Tuchel demands will make qualification all but a certainty in Sweden.
A six-point gap ahead of Zenit with two games to go would be a huge advantage if Juventus win as expected, but do we really want that? A draw or a Zenit win in Turin would leave the possibility of us topping the group much more likely. I reckon it’s a case of ‘who cares?’ as far as we are concerned, anyway. Deal with your own business and ignore the other scores, just as Thomas Tuchel said at the weekend when Manchester City and Liverpool both unexpectedly slipped up. In short, if we can beat Malmo, any score in the other game afterwards can be construed as a positive one.
Almost every season I mention the fact that nailing qualification in the Champions League before the final game is hugely important because of the stress of the season when that sixth game comes along. There will be tired players, maybe the odd suspension and a good few injuries in amongst the very busy calendar of those nine games in December. Add the small matter of a trip in the winter all the way to St Petersburg, where they know exactly what real winter means, and it sounds like an even bigger deal that this qualification is done and dusted as early as possible. A win tonight goes a long way to making that happen.
It is almost funny - well it is if you are a Chelsea fan - when you look at what happened at the weekend with our goalscorers. Everyone had been made aware of the danger from our wing-back Ben Chilwell who was on a stunning scoring run, never mind someone in an advanced full-back roll. So, what happens when they ‘try’ to squeeze his area? Up pops the space on the other wing for Reece James to rattle home a couple of crackers. I have still no idea who our real danger man is before any game!
The weekend once more had me watching Jorginho with my jaw metaphorically on the floor. His proactive play seems to be getting higher up the field as the season goes on. Maybe it helps that Thiago Silva - and others to be fair - can step out of the back line now and again and play the deep lying ‘Cinco’ midfield controlling position with consummate ease. This allows our number five to move that bit further forward.
On top of that, however, once again his penalty kick style took the breath away. I urge anyone to watch his penalty against Newcastle again, specifically from the (third) angle that shows his face never looking down at the ball at any point. Try then going outside with a ball, into your garden if you have one or in a local park, and try to do what he does. Remember he does it under pressure, with thousands of fans, TV cameras, a professional keeper in goal and he still doesn’t feel the need to look at the ball before he kicks it, watching and waiting for the keeper to move.
He is now mixing his penalties up a bit. Sometimes there is a hop, skip and jump, and other times it can be a perfectly normal, well-struck, old-school pen. On this occasion it was the ‘Eden Hazard’ method, and it was as good as any Eden scored for us. It is just one of a myriad of highlights at the club at the moment. A win in Malmo and we can enjoy the run of games coming up so much more.