Despite the absence of four senior players for today’s trip to Bournemouth, Frank Lampard still has selection decisions at the forefront of his mind as he prepares his team for a trip to the South Coast in the Premier League.
The boss will be without the services of Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic and N’Golo Kante, none of whom were starters in our midweek Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich at Stamford Bridge.
Abraham, the only one of the quartet to feature on Tuesday night, was introduced in the second half but the England striker continues to suffer pain from a lingering ankle injury. He will sit out of training and match action this weekend, though Lampard insisted the prospect of surgery was not yet being considered as a viable solution.
‘It’s an ankle injury around the ligament,’ revealed Lampard. ‘He’s got inflammation and the inflammation is causing pain so we’re looking at ways to get rid of that pain.
‘It’s been a month [since he suffered the injury against Arsenal] and we’re still talking about it so it’s been a frustrating one because we’ve seen him come back and go away. Sometimes things that are pain threshold are like that but if he’s not comfortable then he probably has to come out for a few days at least to see where it’s going.’
Lampard also has to decide whether to stick to the 3-4-2-1 system that has been deployed in our past two outings or revert to the four-man defence favoured throughout much of this campaign. In terms of defensive personnel, Fikayo Tomori has not started a league game since the trip to Arsenal two days before New Year’s Eve, an omission that has generated conversation in recent weeks.
‘I have four centre-backs to choose from so generally every week two of them are unhappy,’ Lampard explained. ‘People will question when you change it all the time and then question when you stick with the same back two or three. There’s competition in that area.
‘With Fikayo, he has to always train at a top level because when you’re out of the team, however much it hurts, you need to show a good attitude and train very well. At the moment, I think he is - he’s in and around it and he’s got a long career ahead of him at this club without a doubt. It’s been more of a selection issue for me and that’s just how it’s gone.’
Another player generating headlines this week has been Willian after the Brazilian provided an update on his contract negotiations with the club in the aftermath of the Bayern game. The 31-year-old’s current deal expires at the end of the season.
‘It’s an ongoing conversation with the club,’ said Lampard. ‘I know it’s maybe not ideal timing but I get asked every few days and players get asked after games so it’s not always easy for them to say nothing. I don’t have a problem with that but I don’t want to get too drawn into it.
‘We’re working day-to-day to try to finish as high as we can this year and I’m not jumping ahead to the summer. It’s not over so we’ll see.’
The Blues remain three points clear in fourth place but some way behind the runaway league leaders Liverpool and Lampard continues to balance the competing demands of maintaining that advantage over the chasing pack while bridging the gap that has developed above.
He knows there remains work to be done on both fronts but is keen to remind people of the mitigating circumstances at play at Stamford Bridge this season, not least the summer window transfer ban and loss of ‘the best player in the Premier League in Eden Hazard’. There is no question, according to Lampard, that everyone at the club knows the scale of the challenge this season.
‘The landscape of the Premier League has changed because Manchester City and Liverpool have set incredible standards,’ he continued. ‘We’ve had some outside influences with the transfer ban and a huge player left the club but we’re certainly on the same page here when I speak with the board. There’s no doubt we know we’re fighting for fourth place.
‘It’s a very dated phrase when people say "but you’re Chelsea, there’s no way you should happy with fourth" because the league has changed. It’s not like it was for Man United players 15 or 20 years ago, or for us Chelsea players when we were first or second for a period in the mid-2000s.
‘What we must do is make the fans proud every time we play, show that we’re fighting to get better and better, try and win as many games as we can. I don’t think anyone can deny that we’ve done that this year. At times, we’ve fallen short for little reasons in terms of those standards but we want to bridge the gap and I strongly believe we will. I’m very aware of what that is and we all are as a club.’
Our trip to Bournemouth is the start of another key run of league fixtures before the final international break of the season at the end of March and similar high-pressure tests are welcome in aiding the development of Lampard’s young group.
‘At times they’ve had it difficult but the maturity will come and that’s why we have to give them some leeway this year,’ Lampard said of the young players learning on the job. ‘For Mason [Mount] and Reece [James] on Tuesday night, it was a huge game for them in terms of their learning curve.
‘I didn’t play my first Champions League game until my mid-20s here at Chelsea and even then it was an uplift for me in terms of the level, let alone being their age [21 and 20 respectively]. Reece was playing at Wigan last season and Mason was playing at Derby with myself but now they’re going up against Thiago Alcantara and the flying machine [Alphonso] Davies from Bayern Munich.
‘It’s a huge test and those tests will be great for them in the long-term but it was a difficult night for them. When you look at our squad, it’s not just those players – [Mateo] Kovacic has been to a final with Real Madrid and [Cesar] Azpilicueta has been to a semi-final here at Chelsea but the rest of the starting 11 are either new to Champions League football or have only ever got to the last-16.
‘We have to be real and honest. There’s a reason why we are where we are at the moment. We haven’t challenged in the Premier League for a couple of years and we want to close that gap but we have to fight and work as hard as we can on the training pitch and in games to make it up.’