Frank Lampard's high-flying Chelsea face test of their title credentials against Pep Guardiola and Manchester City
Six wins on the spin have propelled the Blues into unlikely challengers for the Premier League crown, but they have a defence that leaks goals and are yet to beat any of the current top seven
In the light blue corner, one of the most decorated managers ever. In the dark blue, the most decorated of the last few weeks.
Pep Guardiola against Frank Lampard ought to be an unequal contest, between a manager who has won two Champions Leagues and eight league titles in three countries and one who lost in last season’s Championship play-off final.
Yet Lampard arrives at the Etihad Stadium tomorrow as the Premier League’s reigning manager of the month. His Chelsea are one point ahead of Guardiola’s City and on a run of six successive victories. They have form, confidence and the welcome element of the unexpected.
Rewind two months and queries if Chelsea could finish in the top four were laced with the impression that their aims may have to be downgraded.
Now the questions may be different. Instead of whether Chelsea can qualify for the Champions League, it is if they could as champions.
Realistically the answer is no, and not least because Liverpool’s near-impeccable start and record of a solitary defeat in 51 league games means the prospective winners should require a minimum of 95 points and possibly 100. And yet Chelsea need only cast their minds back three years to a similar situation when a new manager made an uncertain start, gathered momentum in October and November and went to the Etihad Stadium.
Antonio Conte’s 3-1 triumph over Guardiola’s City was part of a 14-game winning run and the eventual champions’ springboard to greater success.
If Cesar Azpilicueta and N’Golo Kante may be the only players to start both then and tomorrow, the newer, younger crop also need to emulate their predecessors if they are to spring a surprise, both on the day and over the season.
Conte’s team beat City home and away and each of the rest of the top six once. Lampard’s side are yet to defeat any of the current top seven. They have lost to Liverpool and Manchester United, drawn with Leicester and Sheffield United. They meet Arsenal in December, a week after a reunion with Jose Mourinho.
Perhaps more than anyone, Lampard prospered under his mentor. In some respects, however, he bears more comparison with Guardiola who took over a club where he was a Champions League-winning midfielder, in Barcelona, and steered them to glory in his debut year.
That is not to say he is yet a manager or a coach of the Catalan’s calibre, but each prospered after being deprived of a talismanic attacker. Guardiola chose to sell Ronaldinho in 2008, whereas Lampard had no say in Eden Hazard’s departure.
No one, of course, is the Chelsea Lionel Messi but the emergence and excellence of Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have vindicated Lampard’s decision to put his faith in the up and coming.
Rewind to Chelsea’s last trip to Manchester and Mourinho, then on punditry duty, questioned the selection of the two homegrown players for the 4-0 defeat to United, suggesting Olivier Giroud and Willian, who was not fit, would have been better alternatives.
The Brazilian has since become pivotal but the blend of experience and youth has been weighted towards the younger players.
It may be damning them with faint praise to suggest that energy and optimism have propelled them thus far, though the 4-4 draw with Ajax summed up the helter-skelter nature of their season, but now Lampard faces a different kind of test.
Guardiola’s legendary attention to detail suggests potential frailties could be scrutinised. The gaps in midfield were an early-season issue, when Chelsea could be caught on the counter-attack.
Their zonal marking at set-pieces was a problem and if a switch to a mix, with some man-marking, has brought improvement, Ajax still scored twice from free kicks.
If Kurt Zouma and Fikayo Tomori have exceeded expectations as a centre-back pairing who, before the season started, looked fourth- and fifth-choice respectively, the reality is that only six teams have conceded more league goals.
City, the top scorers, could expose a soft underbelly; in February Chelsea sieved six goals at the Etihad Stadium, when a high defensive line and an inability to press properly – City rationalised that neither Hazard nor Gonzalo Higuain would do so well – helped Guardiola’s team destroy Maurizio Sarri’s.
A year earlier, Conte had adopted the opposite approach, with a blanket defence and a marked lack of ambition.
If Lampard’s is a futuristic project, there are lessons and warnings alike from Chelsea’s past. But following in Conte’s footsteps by both winning at City and lifting the title would elevate Lampard to the rank of the elite managers.
Updated: November 22, 2019 08:51 AM