Having featured in every game since the restart, Ross Barkley is enjoying some of the best form of his Chelsea career and relishing the opportunity to make an impact on the field.
After netting the FA Cup winner at Leicester, the midfielder struck again two games later when rounding off the scoring in a 3-0 victory over Watford and those goals have come alongside a string of impressive all-round midfield displays.
The 26-year-old has received praise from his manager and team-mates alike, though his primary focus remains on securing the results the team needs in the final four league games to ensure Champions League football returns once again to Stamford Bridge next season.
Bramall Lane is the stage for the next part of that quest and Barkley acknowledges the threats that Chris Wilder’s team will pose as they continue their own bid for European qualification.
‘They’ve surprised a lot of teams this season,’ claims the England international. ‘We all saw last season how well they performed and the manager has done a brilliant job there.
‘They’ve got a great squad and you can see that in every game they give 100 per cent. They’re well organised with five at the back, hard to break down with two difficult blocks to break through and they’re a proper team who get results.
‘They are challenging to finish as high as possible just like us but we’ve been putting in good performances recently so we’re going to take our confidence into the game.’
The Chelsea confidence derives from back-to-back victories in the Premier League and a resurgent run of restart form that has only been bettered by Manchester United. Every game now feels like a significant moment and every win chalked off as another milestone achieved.
‘It was a massive win,’ reflects Barkley on the three points at Selhurst Park four days ago. ‘We had won our previous game against Watford which makes it two on the bounce since our disappointing result against West Ham so we need to carry on with this momentum for our next game.
‘The games are coming thick and fast but we’ve adapted really well to playing behind closed doors. I’ve enjoyed the amount of games coming quick - one game finishes and your focus moves on to the next one straight away so it’s really good. We’re just focusing on winning the games and finishing as high up the table as we can.’
Our midweek win took us above Leicester City in the table but five goals conceded in the previous two away games remains a cause for concern. In fact, the Blues haven’t kept a Premier League clean sheet on the road since December’s trip to Tottenham, the only away shutout this season, and Barkley admits that the group are striving for a better balance between attack and defence.
‘We need to improve our organisation defensively and keep more clean sheets,’ says the Chelsea number eight. ‘Better communication sometimes can prevent conceding a goal.
‘We conceded two against Crystal Palace and three against West Ham so obviously we can improve defensively moving forward. We know what we’ve got but the balance of attack and defence can be a little bit better. We’re working on that a lot in training and we will rectify it.’
A defensive vulnerability at times has led to inconsistencies, which have been the main frustration to Frank Lampard in his first season in the Stamford Bridge dugout. However, Barkley has nothing but praise for the boss’s impact and influence in this maiden campaign as a Premier League manager.
‘He’s very flexible with formations, not so much recently but as the season has gone on, we’ve changed our system quite a few times,’ explains Barkley. ‘He’s been making substitutions at the right time to make a difference in the game, and on the training pitch he puts across his ambition to the players to achieve success at the club.
‘We all know what he achieved as a player and now he’s trying to put that into the younger players, as well as the older players that have achieved success at the club already. The gaffer is great with passing on his knowledge of the game, which is very valuable to us to progress - getting little tips from him here and there is great for us.
‘We felt at the start of the season that there was a bit of a change with a lot of young, exciting players being introduced to the team, alongside a mixture of experience. We’ve had a few hiccups along the way but we are going in the right direction and it’s very exciting.’