Our beloved Chelsea returned yesterday, but as we all know it was not in the circumstances we are very much used to. Our first game in ‘lockdown’ conditions took place at Villa Park against an Aston Villa side battling to stay in the Premier League, and it’s fair to say that it’s certainly as strange an experience as we all believed it would be.
One thing that did not change due to the newly implemented rules and conditions of Premier League football was the anticipation felt by me, and Chelsea fans alike, in the build up to our first game in three months. Frantically refreshing my Twitter feed an hour before kick-off in order to lay my eyes upon Frank Lampard’s choice of personnel is something that happens week in week out, regardless of a lockdown. But this one had been so long awaited, and Frank essentially had everyone fit, meaning everyone to choose from – this only added to the excitement of wondering just who would get the nod ahead of kick-off.
The team itself was strong. A mix of those who had finished the first half of the season strongly, and those we just knew would be starting. The one name that everyone was ecstatic to see was Ruben Loftus-Cheek, starting his first game for Chelsea in well over a year, and someone who has strangely enough benefited from the long break of football globally – the break allowed him to reach a physical condition deemed strong enough for Lamps to throw him straight in. As the kick off approached, those inevitable nerves began fluttering through my body. More than ever this was a game we had to win; after all, all those chasing our immensely important Champions League spot had all fallen to the sword of dropped points prior to our game. But as we all know, there has been nothing more ‘Chelsea’ this season than failing to capitalize on our competitors inability to do the same – hence the nerves.
As a fan lucky enough to be able to travel home and away to follow Chels, the importance of fans and atmosphere in difficult games like this one are paramount to raise the intensity and performance of the team. So the first, most noticeable difference to lockdown football is the option to have ‘fan noise,’ and vice versa. I flicked between both, trying to decide which sat better with me. On the one hand, the fan noise seemed to be ok, and was as close to regularity as we can get. But on the other, some reactions just didn’t align at all with the action on the pitch and the artificial nature of this frustrated me. Equally, the silence of such an established stadium, such is Villa Park, gave the game an almost ‘friendly’ feel. I opted for the crowd noise in the end.
The actual viewing of the game was not in any way different to before the lockdown occurred. In fact, we quickly fell into the pattern of how we had been playing all season. So much of the ball, limited chances created, and even fewer taken; with our opponents managing to convert from their very first chance on goal. At half time it felt as if it was to be ‘one of those days.’ Again.
Substitutions played a key role in our subsequent turnaround – a theme we may see more and more as the league resumes, as second half goals seem much more frequent than first. As a whole, the quality of the first round of Premier League games seemed poor. Teams seemed slow and lethargic, which was expected after such a long absence; but nonetheless, the impact of a player like Pulisic could be vital to us and other teams in deciding games.
The final whistle came as a huge relief, and that winning feeling that has been so sorely missed was welcomed with open arms. Finally, we extended the gap on our rivals, rather than stalling it. The performance was by no means perfect, but it was one that showed character and quality in coming from behind. We play City on Thursday, and if seeing Villa park empty and desolate was bizarre, I cannot imagine what it is going to be like seeing the Bridge in the same manner. City is used to an empty stadium, but we are not. Football has returned in some aspects, but in others, we still have a long way to go.