With Moscow and Wembley ahead and a weekend win to discuss, there is plenty to assess for Pat Nevin in this week’s column as the season simmers on…
Historically successful teams have learned how to grind out results when the beautiful football isn’t exactly flowing.
I well remember Everton many years ago winning the title with a huge number of uninspiring 1-0 wins. Arsenal before Wenger were synonymous with this type of game, though theirs was an intricately planned dour approach. It was successful nonetheless as was the same approach from many Italian sides. indeed Italy have won World Cups by being dogged and impossible to penetrate.
For a few years Chelsea under Jose Mourinho classically made killing games into something of an art form when the circumstances demanded it. Since the dawn of what we might call the ‘modern Barcelona’ era it has been out of vogue, but now and again it can be a helpful aid when the team isn’t quite clicking.
So it was on Sunday against Sunderland. They had turned up with a good deal more spirit than they have shown for most of this season and when they took the lead rather fortuitously, it was certainly a concern for us all at the Bridge.
The team wasn’t playing well, there was no fluidity and the three amigos in midfield for once were all having quieter afternoons. It may have been tiredness, they certainly looked jaded at times but whatever the cause there was a spark missing that needed to be replaced by something else.
Fortunately the team found the ability to be dogged and the grinding began in earnest. Fernando helped with a little spark of pace after the break but it would be pushing it to say that this was a particularly good performance middle to front at any point.
It is a handy weapon to have in your armoury when the games are so close together and if you are going to pull it off you need a stout defence, and that is certainly where the class was showing through at the weekend.
David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic were colossal to my mind from start to finish. Every now and again flamboyance has to be sacrificed, although it must be hard convincing David Luiz of that, but when it is a good result that is the outcome, it can be almost as satisfying.
The most positive side of the Sunderland performance apart from the three points is that the stoicism will undoubtedly be needed for the next few days against Rubin Kazan and of course, Man City on the weekend at Wembley.
I watched the Manchester derby last night and it was a pretty high-octane occasion, with City finding a bit of form that they have been missing of late. It was impressive that both teams were quite so committed in that there was precious little to play for other than pride. It did underline however that City are once again favourites when we meet in the semi-final of the FA Cup.
They also have the advantage of more rest with the Blues playing on Thursday, vital at this time of the season you would think, but wasn’t that the case when Chelsea played United the other week in the first attempt in the previous round?
Certainly Rafa Benitez will once more be thinking long and hard about the team he fields on Thursday in Moscow. Most Blues fans were delighted to see Mata, Hazard and Oscar start against Sunderland, but can all three be called on once more against Rubin? If Chelsea somehow manage to squeeze past both these games successfully it will have been quite a feat of juggling as Rubin are no mugs, even if they aren’t playing at their home stadium and City are certainly concentrating on the FA Cup way above everything else at the moment.
The most positive thing I can say in our favour from last night is that that their most creative player, David Silva, limped off late in the game with what looked like a hamstring strain. On the debit side Sergio Aguero did look pretty special when he was introduced.
So for the umpteenth week in a row, it is the most important week in the season for the club. I just hope it isn’t one of those Wembley weekends that are about grinding it out. I want the best players in both sides to be on top form. If Aguero is flying, we should only be as worried about him as they are about an in-form Eden Hazard.
Kompany looked imperious, but no better than David Luiz in the last few weeks. I suspect that player for player Chelsea are the more skilful side but City shade it in terms of midfield power, so it is well-balanced and too tough to call.
Once again it could come down to strikers who are hitting form at the right time. While Tevez still struggles to hit the heights he once used to and Dzeko is rarely used, Aguero seems the man to watch in light blue. Both Demba Ba and now Fernando Torres on the other hand look as sharp as they have for some time.
The competition between the two Chelsea strikers may turn out to be the most important thing between now and the end of the season. If they keep up the work rate trying to outdo each other it will spur us on to greater things and hopefully to a cup final or two.
Personally I am just looking forward to seeing half of Wembley painted dark blue again this weekend. If we are going to defend the cup however we are going to have to defend at our best, which is what we did so well at the end of last season and what we have started to do so well again recently.
The club has developed a love affair with this trophy in recent years; it almost feels as though it belongs at the Bridge. Four wins in the last six tournaments is astonishing and if we could make it five out of seven, I reckon they should just let us keep it.
This week’s quiz question is which team in history has won the most consecutive FA Cup finals? Answers as ever to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and one lucky winner with the right answer picked at random will be sent a Munich Champions League final picture signed by John Terry.
Good luck in Moscow and at Wembley to the team, two places with great resonance in the club’s history.