Chelsea faces the challenge of Madrid hoping for the miracle of the Champions League

Chelsea faces the challenge of Madrid hoping for the miracle of the Champions League

Chelsea faces the challenge of Madrid hoping for the miracle of the Champions League

They should call it The Miracle of Frank Lampard. It would be the barely plausible story of the man who was guiding Everton to the Championship by landing a new job three months later and, despite all logic, being summoned to save the club he knows best before masterminding a series of unbelievable upheavals and finishing off the campaign as interim head coach that led Chelsea to the most unlikely of Champions League triumphs.

It would be the latest example of football’s ability to surprise and disorient. That would be romance about reality, an invocation of the spirit of 2012, the kind of content ripe to be packaged into a 10-part Netflix documentary. Cue Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali look into the camera and explain that this was the plan all along: buy the club, sack Thomas Tuchel and talk about the long term after hiring Graham Potter; then build a squad of over 30 players after spending nearly £600m, sack Potter after seven months, put one of his assistants in charge for one game, break into the bottom half of the Premier League and end the campaign with a manager who was only available after being sacked by Everton in January.

Related: Frank Lampard warns Chelsea: ‘Without aggression you can’t win games’

Unfortunately that is the reality for Chelsea before they head out to the Bernabéu and face Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday. In truth, there is no grand vision. Last week, as Chelsea scrambled to find a successor for Potter, there was talk of panic. An exhaustive managerial search is underway, but what about the club’s finances? They are highly unlikely to qualify for Europe via the Championship and, with concerns over financial fair play growing after latest reports revealed £121m in losses, people inside the game believe Chelsea will put quite a few players for sale this summer.

Then comes Lampard, who offers a welcome dose of nostalgia after being tasked with overseeing Chelsea’s last hope of Champions League play next season. It is a pleasant appointment, which stirs up memories of European glory with Roberto Di Matteo in charge 11 years ago. It has the potential to be a brilliant story.

But it’s clearly a shot in the blind from the Chelsea board. They’re betting on something intangible: an untenable belief that Lampard, who wasn’t good enough the first time around, whose successor won the Champions League four months after replacing him, can get a melody out of this bloated squad.

Early signs have not been promising. Chelsea were poor in Lampard’s first game back, barely creating anything during the 1-0 defeat to Wolves. However, if they lack identities it hardly comes as a surprise as they are in their fourth manager of the season. These players are clamoring for direction. Some of them will recall how quickly Tuchel found a winning formula after replacing Lampard in January 2021. Lampard, who has been in office for less than a week, needs to prove he can inspire and organize under similar pressures.

Frank Lampard and Carlo Ancelotti shake hands.

Carlo Ancelotti has backed Frank Lampard to improve Chelsea’s dwindling fortunes ahead of the Champions League quarter-final. Photograph: Peter Powell/PA

Some of the problems will be familiar to the 44-year-old. Some faces have changed in Lampard’s 27-month absence, but the lack of edge in attack remains. The contrast with Madrid is stark. While Carlo Ancelotti’s side can count on Karim Benzema for goals and Vinícius Júnior for incisive play on the wings, Chelsea are waiting for Raheem Sterling and Mykhailo Mudryk to justify transfer costs, for Kai Havertz to develop consistency and for João Félix to find his shooting shoes.

I have to admit that these are all good players. Yet Chelsea have scored 29 goals in 30 league games and the other concern must be Lampard’s tactical acumen. Chelsea were open and chaotic under him and Everton weren’t much better. It has developed? Can Lampard find a formula to stop Ancelotti? Will he be able to figure out how to exploit Luka Modric’s control of midfield? Will he be able to stop the incursions of Vinícius on the left?

The smart move, after playing a 4-3-3 against Wolves, would probably be to go back to the back three. The question then would be whether Chelsea will use the 3-4-3 that knocked out Borussia Dortmund in the last round or the 3-5-2 that helped them dominate a 0-0 draw with Liverpool last week. The advantage of the former is that it allows Chelsea to exploit Sterling’s pace on the counterattack; the latter, however, allows Mateo Kovacic, Enzo Fernández and N’Golo Kanté to match Real Madrid’s midfield trio.

Either way, a three-man back allows Chelsea to unleash their full-backs, Ben Chilwell and Reece James. It might work. Real Madrid demolished Liverpool in the round of 16 and beat Barcelona 4-0 last week. Yet Tuchel’s Chelsea all but knocked them out at this stage last year. There is hope. Chelsea still have enough talent to cause trouble, and while Real Madrid are favourites, knockout football means the better team doesn’t always win the Champions League.

But comparisons to 2012 only go so far. That was a battle-hardened Chelsea. They were formed by the peak José Mourinho and had Petr Cech in goal, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry in defence, Lampard in midfield, Didier Drogba in attack. They could win matches and cups with sheer willpower.

The current version does not belong to the same conversation. This Chelsea shrink under pressure, lack a number 9 and have no clear plan. Where are the characters? Lampard could emerge in Madrid. Otherwise Boehly and Eghbali can forget dreams of a fairytale ending.

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