It wouldn’t be Chelsea this season without turning a routine victory into a torrent of error-strewn chaos. Sky Sports coverage put it best with their typically flippant headlines, suggesting that from one minute to the next Chelsea had gone from cruise control to hanging on against a rampant Lille onslaught. The Blues may be through to the knockout stages, but their position in the group is already proving testament to the shortcomings of the sides anarchic approach. Chelsea’s Jekyll and Hyde performances against both Valencia and Ajax in the previous two fixtures left their hands tied and with Ajax falling victim to their own wastefulness victory for Frank Lampard’s men, last night could only secure them second place in the group and a date with some of Europe’s most dangerous sides.
A flurry of drab winter clothing shuffled into Stamford Bridge, with the monsoon of rain and wind set to serve up an expectant but rather apathetic atmosphere. This onset of disdain that has gathered over recent weeks seemed to have little bearing on an energetic Chelsea side. They were easily able to repel Lille’s meek attempts to mimic Everton’s aggressive and physical 4-4-2 formation.
With Antonio Rudiger restored to the starting line-up for the first time since September Chelsea’s backline dominated aerially before quickly transitioning possession into the channels. The German’s inclusion was an enforced stroke of genius and the perfect antidote to Andreas Christensen’s nimble frame, which was so relentlessly exploited by Everton and Aston Villa. Confidence spread throughout the backline and soon Chelsea were spraying the ball around effortlessly. There is however a distinguishable difference between confidence and self-righteousness, of which Lampard’s youngsters have yet to realise. In the first half, they were a model of excellence; direct, precise and ruthless. But yet these standards slipped after the interval with no discernible explanation as to why.
The ‘old guard’ if that is such a term in this fledgeling team came to the fore when it mattered most, and none more so than Jorginho. In dropping back to become a third defender he allowed Chelsea’s full-backs to bomb on and create 2 vs 3 overloads in wide areas via the aide of either Mateo Kovacic and Christian Pulisic or on the right-hand side N’Golo Kante and Willian. With both Cesar Azpilicueta and Emerson competent options on the overlap, Chelsea had the air of unpredictability they needed as Lille were unsure which of the spare men they would have to track in behind. With all three wide options interchanging roles across the course of the game, the Blues were at liberty to use the spare man willingly and relatively unopposed.
Chelsea’s opening goal would come from the flanks and it was Pulisic’s direct running which freed up Willian to collect the ball on the overlap and pull it back to Tammy Abraham for just his second Champions League goal – both of which have come against Lille. A combination of poor deliveries and last-ditch defending from Chelsea’s beleaguered French opponents meant that whilst no more goals were to arise out of said move it has given Lampard a different avenue from which to realise the goalscoring potential of his forward line.
Similarly, the pinpoint delivery that Emerson produced for the second goal of the night has now given the Blues an alternative to Willian and Mason Mount, who have over the course of the season enjoyed mixed success from set-pieces. The left-back’s inswinging corner was met by the head of Cesar Azpilicueta, another member of the ‘old guard’, to double Chelsea’s lead – the Spaniard now has as many Champions League goals this season as Cristiano Ronaldo.
I would not be doing my job rationally if I didn’t bring to light the second-half debacle that left Lampard scowling on the touchline like Mourinho’s post-Rodgers protege. A bright start could have and should have brought about the third goal but a flurry of substitutions halted any momentum in its tracks with Michy Batshuayi and Callum Hudson-Odoi showing little creative spark or desire to push for a regular starting berth. Complacency had set in and a not yet match fit Rudiger was always going to have a mistake in him. Luckily enough Loic Remy remembered his Chelsea roots just in the nick of time to spare the centre-half’s blushes. But this was not before he had capitalised on Kurt Zouma’s poor positioning to fire Lille to within one goal of a major upset.
As it materialised Chelsea survived, but through no reason other than Lille’s dismal attacking presence, and it is no wonder they posted one of the lowest conversion rates in the Champions League this season. Relief was the overriding emotion at full-time, but it should really have been a more momentous occasion. One in which Chelsea welcomed back Rudiger with a ruthless show of intent against one of the Champions League’s weakest teams.