Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 5 Oct 2017
With big games with contrasting results in different competitions recently behind his team, Giles Smith makes comparisons with the past as he gives his fan’s-eye view in this week’s column…
Alvaro, we share your pain. Indeed, I would imagine that all of us trudged away from the ground on Saturday night feeling a hamstring, metaphorically speaking. It was that kind of game, and that kind of result. At any rate, that was clearly the condition I was in, after the final whistle, making my slightly leggy way towards the Fulham Road up the path behind the East Stand. Nothing major – certainly nothing season-ending. But definitely a niggle that would need a little time.
Just to repeat, though – nothing major. There have been occasions (admittedly, none too many in recent years) when one has left the ground on a metaphorical stretcher and facing a long spell out. Indeed, I can remember departing the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow after the Champions League final in 2008 and wondering (wrongly, as it happened) if I had just received a career-ender. And this most definitely wasn’t one of those.
A narrow defeat to what is arguably the strongest Manchester City side ever assembled, under the most accomplished manager that the club has ever appointed, would have had a bunch of consolations to offer in any circumstances. But if a bit of disappointment hung in the air along with the light rain on Saturday, then that was probably on account of what had happened the preceding Wednesday.
That performance in Madrid last week had flown a large and bright flag for what this current set of players is capable of, and one of its immediate by-products was to heighten a few expectations for the weekend. It felt somehow safe to assume that the first English side ever to beat Atletico on their own ground would be able to control pretty much anything the Premier League could send to Stamford Bridge. No surprise, then, really, if, going into Saturday with your cockles still warm from midweek, you were quietly (or possibly even loudly) thinking, ‘Wait until City get a load of this.’
Of course, looking at it more analytically from a proper distance, it was unreasonable to expect a repeat performance (and against a very different type of opposition) within hours. And on that topic, there may be a decent argument to be had about how these two games came to sit on top of one another the way that they did. Time certainly was when teams who had played away in Europe mid-week could rely on a Sunday kick-off rather than a Saturday one, and be guaranteed a little breathing space. But not this time, apparently.
However, let’s not get bogged down in a moan about fixture congestion. Fixture congestion is the very definition of a first-world problem. It’s like protesting that you’ve got too many cars to squeeze onto your drive. And given that it’s the direct consequence of qualifying for, and then remaining in, tournaments, it’s a complaint known only to the successful. Indeed, fixture congestion is God’s way of telling you that you’re doing something right. In that sense, it’s surprising that it has such a bad reputation.
Better, perhaps, to dwell on how good things were looking, even on Saturday, until Alvaro Morata left us. After that, in the face of City’s galvanised energy, it became a bit of a scramble – almost, at times, as if we had been reduced to 10 men. And even then there were a couple of chances to equalise.
Anyway, let’s put it all in perspective. This time last year we were seventh. We had lost to Liverpool at home and to Arsenal away, having drawn at Swansea – none of which felt like particularly fashionable things to do at the time, and which certainly didn’t feel like championship-winning things to do. We were also, incidentally, already out of the Champions League, courtesy of the fact that we hadn’t even qualified for it. But thereafter, as you probably won’t need reminding, we embarked on the most turbo-charged winning streak in the club’s history, all the way to Christmas and beyond, and, by May, were bathing in a shower of streamers at Stamford Bridge.
Or, if you really like your perspective raw, consider where we were two years ago – or, in other words, seven games into the 2015/16 season. At that inglorious moment in our last title defence, we found ourselves in 14th place, which is somewhere you don’t want to go without a snorkel, and wedged uncomfortably (not to mention non-alphabetically) between Watford and West Bromwich Albion, with eight points, a goal difference of minus three and a slightly hot and embarrassed expression on our faces. I’d rather be where we are now.
One mentions all this simply with a view to making the very basic point that a league table is still an enormously fluid thing at the beginning of October, that, as with investments, teams can go up and down, and that things change - and very often, around these parts, for the better. Also, as Pat Nevin has already pointed out this week, the run of fixtures stretching ahead, and beginning with Crystal Palace away after the international break, has an encouraging look about it - or certainly for the kind of team that’s already shown itself capable of beating Atletico Madrid in Madrid. Okay, you wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s one long ‘special offer’ aisle between here and Christmas, but one thing is true: the list doesn’t include City. By my estimation, we won’t face an English team as good as that again until next March, which is a long way off, and who knows what the table will look like then?