PERHAPS Chelsea’s season will be tougher than their 5-2 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers might have suggested. In a fortnight’s time, should Frank Lampard’s young team lose in the Eurostar city of Lille, they may get a chance to defend their Europa League crown.
It’s surely premature to write Chelsea’s Champions League obit, but against Valencia they lacked guile and midfield creativity and man-of-the-moment Tammy Abraham ploughed a lone furrow that was short on supply. For much of the 90 minutes he looked what he currently is – an inexperienced, but potential-rich, young striker who has not been exposed to the top flight of European football.
It was one of those nights when the tourists came in their droves – sacks full of merchandise, obsessive selfies, long-distance smart phone videos destined for snapchat and the dreaded half-and-half scarves. And, most worryingly, no sign of Chelsea’s pre-match soundtrack, Harry J All Stars’ Liquidator and 1972’s Blue is the Colour. The cynics among us wondered if UEFA had imposed an official playlist on Champions League participants – our platform, our music.
There was also no sign of Gary Staker, Chelsea’s player liaison officer who used to provide a natural blockade in the players’ tunnel at the Bridge. There are rumours of him being ousted and given a lesser role. The times they are a-changing at the club.
Chelsea’s gradual improvement under Lampard since that nightmare of an opening fixture at Old Trafford has prompted rising affection for their young players, notably Mason Mount and Abraham, which was evidenced by the crescendo of noise when their names were announced.
Lampard’s reputation and place in the Chelsea pantheon has already earned him that precious commodity at Chelsea, patience, something his predecessors have not enjoyed. Lampard is also the first Englishman to manage the club since Glenn Hoddle in 1996.
For all the concerns about whether Lampard is experienced enough to manage a club like Chelsea, they’ve lost just once in five games. Admittedly, they have yet to win at home, but away from Stamford Bridge their best form has seen Abraham finding his feet with seven goals in three games. Although the results were better last season, there is a different, more relaxed mood at the club.
There’s little doubt the fans love Abraham, he’s tall, mobile and eager and has the agreeable habit of being in the right place at the right time. Chelsea should, arguably, have given him his chance sooner. Before the season started, he had won as many England caps as he had Premier League starts with Chelsea, a slightly ridiculous scenario that revealed the flaws of contemporary squad management. Prodigious talent – if Abraham is just that – does not need to be loaned out to a series of lesser clubs, not just because of the impact on the player’s self-esteem, but also because it fails to optimise resources (both money and human capital). Now Abraham has got his chance, you sense he’s making up for a little lost time.
Abraham was the sole striker until Lampard added Olivier Giroud in the second half. In midfield, Jorginho looked short on ideas and Mateo Kovacic appeared to be very jaded. Willian threatened to cause problems, but didn’t quite get there and Mount’s contribution was brought to an end after he was quite cynically chopped down by the over-zealous Francis Coquelin. Oh for an Eden Hazard to bring some real quality and trickery to the occasion.
As Chelsea began to run out of steam, Valencia took the lead with 16 minutes remaining with a well-tailored goal that also emphasised the defence’s lapse in focus. A free kick was awarded some 30 yards out and Rodrigo broke from the wall and slightly mis-hit a left-footed effort into the net.
Even then, Chelsea had the chance to save a valuable point, which was doubly important given Ajax were easily beating Lille in Amsterdam. Initially, the handball appeal that followed Fiyako Tomori’s header looked to have been ignored by the referee, but then that controversial three-letter acronym, VAR, came up on the screen. Interestingly, the process of Mr. Cakir checking with the TV, which was positioned in front of the West Stand, became an event in itself, the crowd beckoning and encouraging the decision to go Chelsea’s way. How long until we have choreography introduced to this event, with the crowd counting-down to the decision like UEFA/FIFA’s kick-off routine at major events? In this case, the home team benefitted as the penalty was eventually awarded, but every VAR incident has winners and losers.
Ross Barkley, who had just come on as a substitute, didn’t appear to have the full confidence of his team-mates, who repeatedly asked him if he felt comfortable taking the kick. Their apprehension and lack of trust may have distracted the former Everton man, for he cracked the penalty against the crossbar and into the crowd. Opportunity spurned and with that, the game was gone. With Liverpool losing in Naples, it was a bad night all-round for scousers. But it was a good evening’s work for Valencia’s happy travelling fans and their disgruntled players, who had seen club owner Peter Lim sack manager Marcelino Garćia Toral, despite winning Valencia’s first silverware in 11 years in 2018-19, and install Albert Celades. Chelsea fans, of course, are accustomed to the extremes of the owner-manager dynamic.
What next, though, for the Lampard project? He felt his team should have got at least a point, but they struggled to create decent chances. Valencia looked a little too smart and functional for Chelsea and this victory really does make the group one of the most open this year. And as a learning experience, this game will do them no harm, but the result may be very damaging for confidence and an extended run in the competition. The trip to Lille will be easy to negotiate but the game will not be easy, it will certainly be more difficult than it would have been for past Chelsea sides during the Roman Abramovich era.