My actual Valentine, Theo, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, who’s only gaping flaw is being a Gooner, said to me earlier this week: “At least you can get your Jamie Redknapp fix on Thursday”, to which I deadpanned, “Jamie only pundits on the big games.” Providing gallows humour is pretty much all Chelsea fans can do about the sad situation we’re in, though, creeping into my apathy towards the Europa League is also a smidgeon of excitement about watching my team play tonight, even if it is on that much-mocked platform - Thursday night football.
Europa League is regarded with a sneer by most British football fans, who are far more used to the big-ticket allure of games such as last night’s fixture, Manchester United vs Real Madrid, as well as Arsenal vs Bayern Munich next week. No disrespect to Sparta Prague, Chelsea’s opponents this evening, but they are not quite in the same league as the Spanish and German giants. This has good and bad points. On one hand, the projected spectacle will probably be less eye-catching - last night’s game was fantastic, and despite only having two goals, the wealth of superstars on display alone made it an eye-catching fixture. On the other, the paltriness of opponents should mean that Chelsea have a decent shot at actually winning this competition.
That’s only if we actually take our opponents seriously. The west London club has been accused of complacency on occasions this season, especially in the 4-1 loss to Atletico Madrid, in which Falcao single-handedly tore the European Champions a new one, as well as the World Club Cup final, where Chelsea really should have beaten Corinthians, given the man-for-man quality of the squad. That’s not even going into the many occasions in the league where Chelsea have thrown away leads to lower-table opposition that have led them to dropping invaluable points. Poise is most certainly not something Chelsea have been full of this season, and that is why we find ourselves scrapping with the two north London clubs for those two remaining Champions League places. And unlike last season, we can’t secure Champions League qualification next season by simply winning the competition.
David Luiz is suspended following the yellow cards he accrued in the group stages of the Champions League (remember that competition? Chelsea used to be in it), and Demba Ba is Cup-tied. African Cup of Nation Winners John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses will also not be in action, as they will be staying home, getting some much-needed rest. Chelsea ought to have the upper hand, match-fitness-wise, over the Czech side, who haven’t played since early December due to their winter break. At the same time, however, Chelsea’s last endeavour away from home in Europe was not a fond memory - at Juventus last November, was when we lost 3-0, that led to Di Matteo getting sacked the next day.
While Benitez probably doesn’t regard this competition as seriously as Andre Villas-Boas does, he knows it would be prudent not to field a completely inexperienced side. John Terry could feature, as he has been passed fit, as could Frank Lampard, who is the only Chelsea player who featured last time these two sides met at the Letna Stadium, a testament to the Englishman’s endurability.
Petr Cech is likely to start against his former club, eleven years on from his transfer from Prague to French club Rennes. This is despite him damaging a finger in an accidental punch on teammate Gary Cahill in the game against Newcastle (Cahill seems to have a knack for colliding with goalkeepers; it was the centre-back’s crash with Joe Hart in a friendly against Belgium that led to him missing the 2012 Euros). In the pre-match presser on Wednesday, Chelsea’s no 1 put on a brave face when asked about his homecoming, speaking encouragingly about Chelsea’s chances of triumphing in the competition, but he could not mask the general atmosphere, which was one of this being some kind of penance for Chelsea not dispatching of their rivals in the group stages of the CL convincingly enough.
And, truth be told, this is the mentality of the vast majority of majority of Blues fans. I spoke to two Chelsea fans at my Uni earlier this week - one didn’t even know we had a game on Thursday, and the other said “I’ll watch the Europa League… if we make the final.” A colleague from my old work emailed me asking if I was going to be going to this “disaster.” And so on. The fact of the matter is, I can put on a brave face all I want, but all Chelsea fans crave for is Tuesday and Wednesday night football - where we belong. Lamentably, it just so happens that we don’t belong there this season.
Still, there could be a lot worse ways than spending Valentine’s Day with my football club, and I’m not just saying that because I intend on eyeing up Gary Cahill’s phenomenal guns (while innocently cuddling Theo). At least we’re in a European competition, which is more than can be said of Manchester City. Chelsea have lost the Community Shield, European Super Cup, Club World Cup, crashed out of the Champions League, have no chance in the league and are out of the Carling Cup. That’s quite a litany of fail. The Europa League is one of the two remaining things we can win. To prevent this shambles of a season from becoming even more of a joke, I suggest Chelsea take full advantage of it.