Chelsea expose some flaws in nervy qualification, but will improve
All too easy. Or at least it should have been.
Frank Lampard said on the eve of Chelsea’s final Champions League group tie against Lille at Stamford Bridge that he welcomed the potential jeopardy of an effective knock-out tie to test his players’ mettle. But for most of the night, this was hardly a test at all.
The French side, with one point from five games before the final fixture have been the whipping boys, with Ajax, Valencia and Chelsea jostling for the two qualification places and by the 35th minute their race was effectively run.
It did not help their cause that they did not field a full-strength side. With even the Europa League off the radar for them, there was little real incentive.
Somehow, though, the Blues dozed off and allowed former player Loic Remy to pull a goal back 12 minutes from time and almost grab a second, which would have condemned Chelsea to the Europe’s secondary cup competition.
How embarrassing it would have been given their obvious superiority. It should never have been such a close call.
Tammy Abraham’s rich vein of form continued with his 13th goal of the season from a tap-in and skipper Cesar Azpilicueta doubled the lead with an unopposed header from a corner.
And the chances kept coming as heavily as the downpour which greeted the teams in the opening 15 minutes. But the Blues flattered to deceive and were woeful after the break.
At least it guarantees Lampard’s report card at the end of the year will be full of plus points. There is now a last-16 tie to look forward to and he is on course to guiding his team to a handy position in the league at the halfway stage.
With the transfer ban also lifted, the options and the prospects are all good.
As well as the win, Lampard could enjoy the return of Antonio Rudiger after a long spell out with knee and groin injuries. He hardly needed to bring his A-game to the parade for the most part and would have enjoyed the gentle workout more had it not been for the slightly nervy finale. It was his first game since the visit to Wolves in early September.
This was a group which had brought early pressure for the new boss – a sense of playing catch up after a home defeat to Valencia when a penalty miss from Ross Barkley threatened to be costly.
But the excellent win in Amsterdam against Ajax and the fightback in the return – that astonishing 4-4 draw – redressed the balance. Perhaps it was in keeping with the tight nature of the group that it ultimately went down to the wire at that Chelsea were one kick from elimination.
Bigger challenges await, but for now some of the younger players – Abraham in particular - will have picked up invaluable experience of these sometimes electric European nights, which will prove invaluable when the competition resumes in February.