Frank Lampard and his players couldn’t have been handed a tougher assignment for our first game at Stamford Bridge this season, but in many ways that excites the boss as he looks forward to seeing if his team can ‘push the limits’ against Liverpool.
The Reds visit west London as reigning champions for the first time in 30 years, and at his press conference today Lampard noted the tables have turned from his playing days, when it was Chelsea who were more accustomed to fighting for - and winning - the league title.
On Sunday he wants to see his current group of players go toe-to-toe with Liverpool again, just as they did four times last season, and hopefully end up with a better result than we managed in the league.
‘This is not a game about making a statement,’ started Lampard, putting the fixture in perspective.
‘It’s the second game of the season, and we were probably in pre-season zone in terms of our fitness at Brighton because of quarantine and international breaks.
‘Now we take on the best team in the country last season. It’s a nice challenge for us to go head to head with them. They were the outstanding team last year, and we competed in every game against them. They will always give you a tough match, and we will have to push the limits and try and close that gap. That’s the challenge in front of us.
‘As a player I always felt that adrenaline and feeling for a game at this level, and it’s the same for a coach. I know we’re going up against a great team, I’m going up against a fantastic coach, so you want to do well.
‘When I was playing the games were ultra-competitive and very difficult for us. In modern-day terms it looks slightly different because Liverpool have been fighting to win the league, and last year they did. We are now trying to improve and close that gap, and that competitiveness is what the Premier League is all about.’
Lampard played down any sort of personal rivalry with Jurgen Klopp after a touchline incident in July, saying he ‘had a huge amount of respect for him, and always has done’. Lampard is seeking to emulate the German by building a title-winning group of players, and getting the best out of them.
‘It’s a challenge for any coach in the Premier League, but any squad has to have 20-plus players to be able to fight on all fronts, and handle the endurance test that is the season.
‘Trying to find the right balance for the squad was something we were searching for a lot last year because I couldn’t make changes, which might have changed how we looked slightly and maybe brought us better balance.
‘This season we hopefully will move towards having a really good balance in the squad, but we must give that some time. We’ve brought players in, we haven’t had a pre-season, and it will take time to get the team working in the direction I want it to.’
Time is also something Lampard says is vital when it comes to assessing Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s performances. The midfielder was on the receiving end of some outside criticism after his showing at Brighton, and Lampard used the opportunity to reiterate just what the 24-year-old has gone through in the past 18 months.
‘I know Ruben’s story probably second best to how he knows it. Ruben had a terrible injury, one he worked very hard to come back from over the course of last season. He was just about fit to play Under-23 games when lockdown came in, worked incredibly hard in restart, got a start against Aston Villa, was due to start against Bayern Munich but had a bit of an issue on the day of the game, and trained brilliantly to get fit again for the start of the season.
‘If there is harsh criticism of him in a game against Brighton then it is certainly very harsh, because carrying an injury like he has has been difficult for him, and he’s put a lot of hours in. He’s a hugely talented player, a great lad, and there will be lots more to come from Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Unfortunately, the nature of this game is very reactionary and people will say it how they see it, but knowing Ruben’s story he has fought back really hard to get where he is, and he’s a very talented player.’
Lampard’s final answer in his press conference today was to a question about the possibility of supporters returning to stadiums in the near future.
‘We are desperate to have the fans back, who isn’t on either side, be it the fans themselves or those working in the game. Part of the beauty of the Premier League is the rivalry and how much we love our clubs and love working for our clubs. I certainly do.
‘It’s not a conversation I can go too deep on at the moment because safety and health is absolutely the number one consideration for everyone. When you go one level further we say yes we want to come back and watch football, so the right balance has to be struck.
‘I understand the Premier League are very keen for it, I understand the government want to do it in the right way. Let’s hope we can do it safely and do it at the right time and the right pace and get our game back to where it was before.’