Pat Nevin: Champions choices

Good recent results and players returning from injury give Antonio Conte options for tonight’s game, as considered by Chelsea legend Pat Nevin in this week’s column…

Are you sitting comfortably? Actually most football fans rarely sit comfortably at matches even when it is your own seat you have paid for. Or indeed if you are just watching in your house or in a bar or wherever, it still isn’t relaxing. Then again, watching football isn’t really supposed to be relaxing, well not during the game anyway; the enjoyment comes from the excitement and the uncertainty.

There has been plenty of that around the club recently, but maybe it was a little calmer this week than the results would have suggested. Odd-goal wins against Everton in the Carabao Cup and away at Bournemouth in the league sounded tighter than they really were. In the first half against the Toffees, Chelsea where streets ahead of a side trying to find their feet and their identity under a new coach. A couple of goals, once again from short corners, were a poor reflection of a dominant display and on Saturday, it was controlled from start to finish.

The highlights in the cup game were an impressive display by Davide Zappacosta and young Ethan Ampadu looking as though he belonged in that company right from the first minute. Maybe the most important performance in the widest sense was from Antonio Rudiger. He was his usual rugged self in the defensive tackling department, in fact his marking was generally superb in the back third of the field and of course he scored that superb header to open the scoring against Everton. The reason why his performance is important is because Antonio Conte has a huge call to make at the back for the Roma game tonight. Does Rudiger start this one?  He did after all come on against Roma near the end of the first game and he did a pretty good job on Edin Dzeko, who was by then hunting for his hat-trick.

By Saturday evening he was first choice in the league team down on the South Coast and once again showed his defensive prowess, as well as his ridiculous pace when put under any pressure. He also had a few pretty spectacular searching balls from left centre-back to Zappacosta on the opposite right wing which, I will be honest, I wasn’t aware he had in his locker. 

The only problem is that on Saturday, the defence had Cesar Azpilicueta on the right, David Luiz central and Rudiger on the left. Dzeko almost always peels away to the area Cesar would be positioned, on the right-hand side of our defence. If Antonio Conte goes with the same back-three does he consider switching Azpi and Rudiger to allow the latter to cope directly with the Dzeko threat? That must be a temptation mostly because of the height advantage Dzeko has over Cesar, but isn’t this pretty harsh on Gary Cahill and Andreas Christensen who haven’t been doing a great deal wrong?

If you were going to be completely belt-and-braces about the Dzeko threat, you could go with a back three of Rudiger, David Luiz and Cahill with Azpi as the right wing-back helping out on the cover on that side, with Alonso as usual wide on the left. Plenty of cover there, but that would leave Zappacosta out and what exactly has he done wrong in the last two games? The more you think about it the more you realise how many decisions the manager has to get spot on, particularly on this occasion because Roma are a good team and Dzeko is basically on fire right now.

I have watched quite a few of Roma’s recent matches and he is looking better, stronger and more tactically astute than he has at any time in his career. In the simplest terms, if you stop him you have gone a very long way to stopping Roma.

It does seem like giving a lot of consideration given to the opposition when Antonio could confine his thoughts purely to our own strengths. Is it being too negative? I do not think so. This is such a vital game in the group, maybe the pivotal one, and we really do not want to lose it. Purely for the way the arithmetic of the group has panned out, a draw would be an exceptional result, even if a win would of course be perfect.

Antonio knows this and we also know that he is the best in the business at understanding the Italian Serie A clubs. Instead of being too concerned, I suspect the boss just feels happy that he has got a good few options all over the field, not just at the back. With Danny Drinkwater available, Kante on the cusp and Eden getting better and better with every game after his injury, it feels a lot less like a ‘make-do-and-mend’ period than it did a just a few games ago.

Maybe the single most important and heartening sign was that there was finally a little of that rare commodity, comfort, and quite a lot of control around the last two games. The game against Bournemouth was the best team performance since the win away at Atletico Madrid. We basically bossed the entire game and vitally, the understanding between Alvaro Morata and Eden Hazard was blossoming once more.

Had the display against Bournemouth not been as dominant, then I will admit right now that I would be a touch concerned. As it is, I think it should be Roma that should be more apprehensive, after all they absolutely need to win. It may well be that the need to win and play more openly will leave a few gaps in behind that our creative players can utilise.

So it is an exciting time and yes, a stressful time too but that is what we crave. It is also a tiring time but don’t let the Chelsea Ladies team hear you saying that. They have six games in 17 days right now, though they have certainly got the squad to cope with it.

With so many big games all over the club it would still be remiss not to mention the fabulous England U17 World Cup win and of course the impressive Chelsea contingent in that squad. Congratulations and the best of luck with what could be the real start of some brilliant careers. Now those lads have earned a rest and a chance to sit back and enjoy tonight’s match, unless they are involved in today’s UEFA Youth League game too, but I bet they will not be totally relaxed. None of us will be before the final whistle with the chance to progress from the Champions League group stage still in the balance.