Still catching his breath from watching all the non-stop incident in Spain last night, Chelsea legend and columnist Pat Nevin looks at the game which left the Blues well-placed in our Champions League campaign…
There is a fine line in football between excitement and mayhem. In Valencia Chelsea surfed on the edge of that precipice for a good 97 minutes at the Mestalla Stadium.Like watching surfers on a 60-foot wave it was breathless stuff from start to finish. I am still unashamedly coming down on the side of loving it rather than worrying about any technical defensive frailties. Maybe it is easier for me than others because I have always placed entertainment and excitement on a par with winning, although I understand that not everyone feels that way.
You could spend a long time discussing the number of chances the Spaniards squandered on Wednesday night, including two open goals and a penalty miss. You could however also consider the brilliant save from Tammy Abraham that had our young striker in open-mouthed disbelief at Cillessen’s brilliance, along with great chances for Willian and a bucket load of superb crosses we couldn’t quite convert. In simple terms, it was a breathless, end-to-end game of football that would have some managers tearing their hair out but had most watchers transfixed and on the edge of their seats.
Maybe it should be considered in the most mundane way. We went to Spain and got a point against a decent side and finished up knowing a win in the final home game against Lille ensures qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League. Would anyone not have taken that after the opening night 1-0 home defeat against Valencia?
Whether it is Fikayo Tomori, Andreas Christensen or Kurt Zouma who partners him, it will probably look much more secure considering his defensive talents and his experience.
The defender on the field who is really catching the eye however is Reece James. His progress has been nothing short of extraordinary in such a short time. The most obvious thing about his game right now is the number and the quality of crosses he is whipping in from that right-hand side. Whether it is Tammy Abraham, Michy Batshuayi or Olivier Giroud, they must be desperate to be on the field when he is delivering these opportunities.It all seems so effortless and maybe the most important thing is he always puts the ball in as soon as there is an opportunity. Strikers all love an early ball they can attack, sent in wickedly between the defenders and the goalkeeper.
At least as impressive is his defensive work. Whether it is Raheem Sterling or Wilfried Zaha taking him on, he never looks concerned and is very rarely beaten. He is certain to improve as he learns the game more and right now, you can see a player who could quite easily be the club’s right full-back for the next decade.
There was a moment in the first half that had me grinning like a Cheshire Cat. James was being closed down by two Valencia players in his own half and the utter confidence, bordering on disdain, with which he shrugged them off and played his way out of danger was extraordinary. There are very few players, even at the most experienced end of the age range, who can do that deep in their own half. He appears unflappable but with good reason. He has the power and the skill.
In the midst of it all there was of course the breakthrough moment for Mateo Kovacic when he finally scored his first Chelsea goal. To be fair, it has been coming. His forward breaks from midfield have become increasingly impressive as the season has progressed. I had a look at his special skills in the live pre-match on The 5th Stand app which I do before every Champions League game, even before he scored the goal, and his subtle skills certainly are worth considering.
It is a tough call now for Frank Lampard every week, deciding who sits on the bench between Kovacic, N’Golo Kante, Jorginho and Mason Mount. You could start all four but then Christian Pulisic would have to be sacrificed and that would be harsh as he scored again and is now arriving in the box with the best of them. Of course it is a good problem to have and there probably isn’t a ‘right answer’. For different games different solutions will be needed. Most importantly, the starting three will not always be the finishing three, but to be fair no one prefers to be the super sub.
At the moment Jorginho looks undroppable. When he was subbed against Valencia we suddenly had far less possession. N’Golo has scored one and made one in the last two games as well as playing like his usual super-hero self. So it may well be a choice between Kovacic and Mount, which is a tough call that will only get more complicated when Ruben Loftus-Cheek returns.
It is not a problem, it is a positive dilemma that these decisions are not easy. So like lots of Chelsea fans I am gutted when I am forced to miss any match live. The defeat to Manchester City found a Pep Guardiola team faced with the least amount possession they had ever enjoyed. The rare losses still have positives.
There is oddly an interesting thing happening in north London with Spurs under Jose Mourinho. He/they have been involved in open, high-scoring games! This may be nothing more than happenstance, but there is a feeling afoot that open, devil-may-care, attacking football is the only way to win things these days.
If that is the case then Frank Lampard is at the forefront of modern thinking and he is doing it with a team that is likely to improve as they age and grow to understand each other even better. West Ham come to Stamford Bridge at the weekend and they are a side who are known to be at heart an open, attack-minded group, even if they are struggling for confidence right now. Once again it could be a cracker and there is only one result I would struggle to imagine - 0-0.
Enjoy it while it lasts, but I have a suspicion it is likely to last a long time. By all means consider the defensive openness but for goodness sake do not let it spoil your joy at some of the most exciting games we have witnessed at Chelsea for many years.
Pat Nevin appears regularly on The 5th Stand - download the app now