Accepting you have a problem is always the first step to healing it. Chelsea still appear some distance from accepting that this is not poor form, they are simply not good enough. They are in the Premier League’s bottom half because they have been a team of bottom-half quality.
After their drab 1-0 defeat to Wolves, Frank Lampard earmarked Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final against reigning champions Real Madrid as a potential watershed for the club’s fortunes. Lampard said, “Wednesday will be a completely different game” and that “we have a huge game waiting for us on Wednesday, where everything changes.”
Will it? Does it? Will this squad suddenly be coherent and cohesive, a manageable size, with a functioning striker? Do the bright lights of the Bernabeu possess some hidden healing power? Will Lampard and Ashley Cole’s returns miraculously exhume the spirit of Didier Drogba at the Allianz?
It’s somewhere between admirably romantic and dangerously naïve for Lampard to suggest there is some mystical aura around Chelsea in the Champions League which could provide a panacea at Stamford Bridge. Whether through wilful ignorance or genuine delusion, Chelsea appear unable to look beyond the Bernabeu. You cannot really blame them.
Chelsea face five of the league’s top seven sides in the remaining 10 games of Lampard’s already ill-fated second stint. They are due visits to the Emirates, the Etihad and Old Trafford once they return from Madrid and will also host Newcastle, Brighton and Brentford. Their only two games against bottom-half sides are Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest outfits fuelled by the threat of relegation.
Chelsea beat just one of these sides in the reverse fixture – Bournemouth. In fact, the Blues have won just one of their 14 games this season against teams currently in the top half of the Premier League – a 2-0 win over Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa.
This is perhaps because they have not used the same line-up in any of their 19 games since the World Cup. Form tends to require either on-pitch consistency or an off-pitch unity underpinned by a common cause and philosophy. Chelsea have neither.
Their 29 goals in 30 league games is a 99-year low. They could only muster one shot on target against Wolves. They have gone three games without scoring for the third time this season.
Saturday’s defeat at Molineux was Chelsea’s 21st away game of the season. They have won just six of those and lost more than half. Without home support, the divisions are more easily exposed, the disarray takes root with greater vehemence.
Chelsea will at least benefit from the return of N’Golo Kante against Madrid, rested on Saturday in place of Conor Gallagher. It is often said the greatest compliment you can pay someone is how easy they make something look. Under the Wolverhampton sun, Gallagher made playing football look like climbing Everest in flip flops and a light vest.
Gallagher is one of many players skirting around the periphery of this bloated carcass of a Chelsea squad. Past Reece James, Thiago Silva, Ben Chilwell, N’Golo Kante and Enzo Fernandez, almost every player appears saleable for the right price, even the once undroppable Mason Mount.
There is a real chance the second Lampard managerial era ends without a win. Chelsea’s record goalscorer was originally set to be in the BT Sport studio for this Bernabeu tie. He will now be in the dugout. His temporary reign is as likely to end with a Champions League as it is with a figure skating Olympic gold.
Accepting this is the best thing Lampard and Chelsea’s owners can do. It will allow them to use the time effectively, to make the necessary decisions around how best to trim the squad, the direction it needs to go in. Bulking season is over, it’s time to cut.