Zig-zag journey of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea reaches critical juncture
Champions League match against Lille big test for the unrestricted football of 'baby Blues'
Perhaps the most disappointing news of last week for neutral watchers of the Champions League was that Chelsea’s transfer ban has been lifted in time for January. The restrictions on signings through the summer imposed on one of the sport’s habitual big spenders has led to some gloriously unrestricted football. The idea that a batch of wise and worldly grown-ups might now be recruited to close out games before the scoreline reaches 4-4 seems almost killjoy.
The zig-zag journey of Frank Lampard’s young team in Europe should reach into the knockout phase of the Champions League on Tuesday, although with this Chelsea, the win – or maybe just a draw – required at Stamford Bridge against a Lille who are confirmed in bottom place in Group H cannot be taken for granted.
Chelsea have lost three of their last four fixtures in the Premier League. They have conceded six goals in their last pair of European games, all of which contributed vividly to making their group the most captivating of an unusually open mini-league stage.
Here’s the maths: if Chelsea win, they go through, and would be joined by one of Ajax or Valencia, who meet in Amsterdam with Ajax, on 10 points, assured of qualification with a draw, or even with a defeat if Chelsea do not beat Lille. For Valencia, on eight points, the demand seems most taxing even though they are currently above Chelsea (eight points) in the table by dint of a better head-to-head record.
Valencia need to match Chelsea’s result, which may well mean beating Ajax at the Johan Cruyff stadium.
Whatever the outcome, the spirit of youthful zest will be represented in the last 16. And if Ajax are not its flag-bearers as they were so dynamically all the way to last season’s semi-finals, then the hope is that, by February, Chelsea will still be.
And also that they not been transformed by a winter-window signing blitz that entirely erodes their reliance on their cadre of young, mostly academy-graduate talents – the likes of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Reece James.
Lampard acknowledges that naivety has undone some of Chelsea’s momentum in recent weeks – sample the defensive errors that gave Everton a 3-1 win on Saturday – but also sees that, in a knockout format, these baby Blues promise a great deal of fun.
Count back Chelsea’s 2019 in European football and it is quite the roller-coaster. On the way to winning the Europa League in May, Chelsea, then under Maurizio Sarri’s management, shared seven goals in a quarter-final against Slavia Prague. They won their semi against Eintracht Frankfurt via a penalty shoot-out and then scored four times in the final against Arsenal.
After their summer of restricted business – Fifa imposed the ban after they found the club had breached regulations on the recruitment of minors – and the promotion of several homegrown tyros to the senior squad, they set off for the Uefa Super Cup. Five outfield players aged 23 or under took part. Chelsea led, fell behind, equalised in extra-time against Liverpool, and lost on penalties.
As for the Champions League, in which eight Chelsea players have made their debuts this season – “they are still babies in this competition”, says Lampard – it has been a similar whirligig.
Beaten by Valencia at the Bridge thanks to a street-smart set-piece and a missed Ross Barkley penalty, their 1-0 win at Ajax seemed a watershed moment. The manager celebrated it with gusto, and immediately urged his players to “realise the things that made that result happen,” effectively setting his pupils an important piece of homework.
He can only conclude they have not done it very well. In the next, extraordinary fixture, against Ajax, Chelsea were a goal down by the third minute, 4-1 behind by the 55th and salvaged a point only once Ajax had had two men sent off.
In Valencia, the helter-skelter barely ceased: Chelsea were losing, then winning, and eight minutes from the final whistle had a foot in the next round. Daniel Wass’s stunning equaliser ensured that Group H would only be resolved on matchday six.
“That lack of consistency is not where we want to be,” admits Lampard, who has overseen two defeats – against West Ham and Everton – and a win – over Aston Villa – in the league since the Valencia trip.
“We have had a week when we have been poor, fantastic and poor again, and if ever there was a game which showed how far we had to go, it was at Everton. You give them a tiny bit room because of the youth of some of the team, but they need to hear home truths. They’re young, but not silly.”
Updated: December 9, 2019 08:09 PM