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Chelsea face defining 12 days as Lampard demands response after shock loss

- Richard Jolly

Frank Lampard ranks as Chelsea’s highest scorer in their history. He was less interested in compiling a more unflatteri­ng table at Bramall Lane on Saturday.

Was that 3-0 defeat to Sheffield United, he was asked, their worst performanc­e of the season? “I’m not bothered where it is on the scale,” came the reply. Yet Lampard conceded it was clearly “one of our worst” and his only heavier loss, 4-0 at Manchester United, had a deceptivel­y harsh scoreline.

And so to a defining 12 days in Chelsea’s future. The pendulums of emotion have swung by the day. Chelsea were wretched on Saturday, reprieved on Sunday, when Leicester City produced a self-destructiv­e second half at Bournemout­h, and saw their margin for error reduced yesterday, when Manchester City’s Champions League ban was quashed.

Fifth place will not be enough anymore. “I just looked at the result,” Lampard said. Sat inside the top four, Chelsea are in control of their destiny – “it’s in our hands and we have to fight for it,” Lampard said – but their final two games are against Liverpool and Wolves.

Today’s task seems simpler: beat Norwich City. Lampard described Daniel Farke’s team as a “wounded animal”. The alternativ­e interpreta­tion is that they were killed off by West Ham United when relegated on Saturday. The only team without a point in the summer have lost seven games on trot. The broader point is whether Lampard can alight on a formula that will work against superior rivals.

The broader context is that, with six wins in eight, Chelsea’s form is good. Yet Saturday was so bad – 76 per cent possession but ineffectua­l in attack, defensivel­y poor and tactically outwitted by Blades – it raised doubts. “I would have been lying to the players and the outside world if I said we deserved something,” Lampard said.

It will be instructiv­e which of those players he selects. Chelsea are at a crossroads, and not merely because one route leads to the Champions League and another to the Europa League. After a transfer ban, they are displaying ambition, but it could come at a cost to others.

N’Golo Kante is still out – he could return for Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final against United – so Jorginho could make just his second start since February. Chelsea have been caught on the counter-attack too often this season and the Italy internatio­nal failed to protect the defence at Bramall Lane.

His agent has admitted he would consider a move to Juventus and Lampard’s summer slights show he has fallen down the pecking order.

Andreas Christense­n is injured so Antonio Rudiger, at fault for the third Sheffield goal, ought to return to the team. Arguably Chelsea’s best centre-back has begun the last three games in the search for the best combinatio­n.

Kepa Arrizabala­ga conceded three goals from four shots on target, the sort of underwhelm­ing return which was not unusual for the world’s most expensive goalkeeper and Chelsea have been linked with Ajax’s Andre Onana.

The warning signs are there for the unwanted. “I know where I want to go with the squad,” Lampard said. “We brought a few players into the squad which shows the positivity of where we want to go.”

With Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech arriving, it amounts to an attacking direction. Defensivel­y, however, Chelsea have conceded 49 goals. At this rate of progress, or regression, they will post their worst defensive record for 23 years. It may not be decisive.

Rewind to August and Lampard’s first win was 3-2 against Norwich. A season of 3-0s and 3-2s and 2-2s has offered entertainm­ent. In three more games, it will be clear if it has brought enough efficiency.

 ?? Reuters ?? Chelsea’s 3-0 loss to Sheffield United may prove costly for Frank Lampard and his men in their Champions League bid
Reuters Chelsea’s 3-0 loss to Sheffield United may prove costly for Frank Lampard and his men in their Champions League bid

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