Giles Smith's Thursday Thoughts

Reflecting on Rome, columnist and Chelsea fan Giles Smith weighs up the merits of the two celebrated days at this time of year, and he declares the winner…


One couldn’t help but notice a certain consistency across the newspapers' back-pages on Wednesday morning. ‘Roma Ruins’ was the headline on the Daily Mirror. ‘Roma Ruins,’ said the Daily Mail, in only slightly smaller print, while The Times went with ‘Conte’s Roman Ruins.’

I think we got the gist.

There was also a fairly strong shared theme in the sub-headings and opening paragraphs of the various match reports under those headlines: ‘Horror show,’ ‘Fright night,’ ‘Nightmare,’ ‘Hell of a night,’ etc.

Again, we see what they’re driving at.

Unedifying reading, no question. That said, I never really did like Halloween very much anyway, what with the tacky costumes, the constant ringing at the door, the endless buckets of Haribo and the losing 3-0 to Roma. Don’t mean to sound grouchy, but it’s always felt a bit artificially imported to me – somewhat shoehorned into the calendar for commercial purposes. I certainly can’t remember the year feeling any emptier back in the days when we didn’t really bother and when the night passed off perfectly normally, without a 3-0 Champions League defeat anywhere.

Anyway, next time anything like this happens, we need Prue Leith to step up, as she so emphatically did before the ‘Bake Off’ final, and, in a state of confusion about the time difference, tweet out the result in advance from Bhutan. That way we can at least be warned about what we’re in for, and know when to look away.

Like after 39 seconds, for instance, when Stephan El Shaarawy swung his foot at the ball from 25 yards out and undermined, no doubt, a number of good intentions; and in the 36th minute when Antonio Rudiger (and I guess there genuinely was a flavour of Halloween about this) didn’t realise there was someone scary (El Shaarawy again) behind him. And then it was 2-0 and all very chilling indeed.

Yet perhaps we ought not to forget that between the concession of a world-class goal and that split second of defensive confusion, there was more than half an hour of not merely acceptable but actually quite classy and rather dominant football. And one can play ifs-and-buts forever, but, truly, had Alvaro Morata not got underneath that shot when a ricochet left him one-on-one with the goalkeeper, or, a bit later, had Tiemoue Bakayoko’s header gone a couple of inches to the right… 

So, Roma ruins? That may have been a slight and irresistible exaggeration for poetic effect. I’m certainly not convinced, painful though the spectacle was at times (and for rather too much of the second half), that the entire, once glorious project of our 2017/18 season became a site of purely archaeological interest in the wince-inducing portions of those 90 minutes in Italy. It would take quite a bit more, surely, than one ragged performance midway through a Champions League group stage to bring that about. And we all know how the old saying goes: Rome wasn’t ruined in a day.

The one unarguably redeeming aspect of the evening was the result in Madrid. Qarabag have now deprived Atletico of four points across their two games with each other, which surely nobody anticipated who wasn’t an unreasonably bright-siding Qarabag supporter. And the Azerbaijani side’s heroism means, from our point of view, that, even after last night’s setback, qualification from the group is still only a victory away. However, winning the group, while it remains possible, is now out of our hands which (without wishing to get ahead of ourselves here) could perhaps prove to be a bit of a shame.

As Tony Cascarino, formerly of this parish, pointed out in The Times, the price of finishing second if the other English clubs win their groups, is an unenviably high chance of meeting either PSG or Barcelona in the next round. (This, of course, on account of the fact that you can’t face a club from your own country in that draw.) In fact, there would potentially be only one other club we could be drawn against, besides those two – Besiktas. In which case, it really could be Halloween, early next spring.

Then again, we’re talking about the Champions League here, and the whole point of the Champions League is that you want to meet the best, don’t you? Just not quite so soon, maybe.

Meanwhile there was certainly no damage so extreme arising from Tuesday night that it can’t be repaired by an imperious performance in our next Premier League match, which just happens to be against Manchester United. It takes place, one notices, on Guy Fawkes night. Sparklers, baked potatoes, shiny faces around the bonfire… now, that’s a properly enjoyable occasion with a substantial history behind it, no? I’ve always preferred Guy Fawkes to Halloween, personally speaking, and I don’t see why this year should be any different.