Pat Nevin: Long runs and long shots

As 2018 begins with the football season around the midway point, Chelsea legend and columnist Pat Nevin considers the Christmas form…

First of all, let me wish you all a belated Happy New Year. I am writing from Scotland where we have been known to have the odd celebration around about this time, but have to admit I have generally been very restrained over Hogmanay. I think the reason for this is that by being involved in football as a player for 20 years, I just got into the habit of not overdoing it at Christmas and New Year.

It is of course the busiest time for footballers and as such, it would be the very worst time to fail to take care of your body and hit the beer, whisky or wine. It is hard enough recovering in time for the quick-fire games when you don’t have a few drinks. Oddly enough, as an aside, I never got to celebrate birthdays either. On the week of my birthday it was always the international week at the start of September, so once again I’d be locked down in some hotel somewhere, often in some far-flung country.

Before you reach for the hankies and the violins start warming up, I must admit I loved the festive time of year as a player. In simple terms, training was great fun but nothing beats playing, so the more games we played the better from my perspective. Clearly Chelsea’s current players appear to feel the same, as they have delivered a near-faultless festive fixture list so far. The last five league games have yielded 13 points, only Everton smuggled a couple away from us and rather undeservedly I thought.  There was also the small matter of an aggregate 11-1 scoreline in our favour. What is more impressive than the stats is that the Blues appear to be looking stronger and stronger all the time.

This is important because remember how often it used to be said that it was this period that really showed what squads are made of. Sir Alex Ferguson believed the campaign only really gets going after Christmas and in those days, he usually had a point. Maybe it is a little different this time, English teams generally do not start campaigns in the extraordinary way Manchester City have this season, though do not forget that Chelsea’s points tally at this stage last year was phenomenal too.  Considering Man City’s form however and even taking the 14-point gap into consideration, is there even a sliver of hope for the Blues to catch the Sky Blues?

It is a long shot of course, but I would say one thing, if City and Chelsea were on the same points tally right at this moment, I think I would put us as slight favourites going forward. Yes I know it sounds odd because of City’s current run, but the cracks are just beginning to show with Pep’s men. With David Silva missing recently, a large part of the creativity is expected to come from the fabulous Kevin De Bruyne, but there have been a few tired looking (but still very good) performances by him of late and of course he is now nursing an injury. They found Newcastle very difficult to break down and Palace impossible to score against, so if someone could go on an extraordinary unbeaten run, then the pressure might just start to tell, particularly as Champions League stresses will add to the mix.

It is a long shot but it would be fabulous if Chelsea could carry on this fantastic run of form and exert at least some pressure. Currently it is 32 points out of the last 39 for our lads and most seasons that would be league-winning form. We know from last season that Chelsea can continue these long runs of unbeaten and even winning streaks and if we do, then I would like to see how City react.

I suppose these long unbeaten runs are among the most positive things as we look back on the year just gone. Yes Chelsea are currently the Premier League holders and 2017 will always be a special year because of that, but everyone knew this was going to be a more testing season with very particular difficulties.

JT leaving the club was a psychological hurdle to overcome and of course the rest of the Premier League would have some ideas about dealing with Antonio’s 3-4-3. I was just a tad smug when I explained to everyone at the time that the boss was anything but a stuck-in-the-mud 3-4-3 man and of course he has shown some of his adaptability this season to great effect. There are also the extra stresses of Champions League games but the additions to the squad have generally been very quick to settle in and that has helped immensely. The perfect example was on Saturday when three of the newbies; Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta, were each on the score sheet. 

This season was also always going to see a Manchester City and Manchester United renaissance because of the managers and the money they have spent. As we look at the league table however and our points total right now, I think it is difficult to be anything other than pretty impressed all things considered, especially as the team looks very good in terms of improvement, depth and power going forward compared to some others.

The Christmas run of games up until now had to be safely negotiated but in truth the match tomorrow night at the Emirates is the most vital. Arsenal clearly need to win this if they have any pretensions of catching us and even a draw would be seen as a great disappointment in their camp. It is always one of the most anticipated matches of the season and of course last season’s encounter will go down in history not for the result but for the galvanising effect it had on our side and the extraordinary tactical reaction by the manager.

I have always loved this match-up, which is pretty fortunate I suppose because facing Arsenal three times in three weeks is pretty extraordinary but also potentially very enjoyable.