When your starting XI only contains one player who has scored more than two goals this season – and that player is often a bad comic finisher – then you shouldn’t be surprised if goals aren’t forthcoming. Chelsea caretaker boss Frank Lampard picked as many Frank Lampards as he had been allowed against Real Madrid, opting for grunt and graft rather than guile, although the kick in the balls was that none of his Franks Lampard could end up remotely like the original.
Lampard’s tactic of flooding the pitch with energy rather than innovation nearly worked, but big chances fell to N’Golo Kante and Marc Cucurella, and when Raheem Sterling, Joao Felix and Mykhaylo Mudryk came off the bench, the Real Madrid’s first major team chance had fallen to Rodrygo and the draw was effectively over. Even avoiding a fourth successive defeat was too strenuous a task for this particular iteration of Chelsea.
The exception for Chelsea was, as is often the case, Reece James. If his struggles in the opening round in Madrid had lengthened the waiting list for Operation Reece James, so the second leg could see it accelerated. James hasn’t quite dazzled in the months following his return from injury, but at Stamford Bridge he was central to everything Chelsea were trying to achieve: directing play, claiming the ball, getting past Real Madrid players, providing cross. After spending millions and millions, Chelsea’s best player is still the right-back at home.
Even with a lengthy contract, James is reportedly still considered buyable by Real Madrid, who know Chelsea may need to sell ‘free’ players this summer. And there is no more valuable ‘free’ player than James, who deserves better than to play mid-table in the Premier League under a manager sacked by a club at risk of relegation. He might love Chelsea, but you suspect he’d also like to play for this golden Real Madrid team.
No player on either side of this Champions League quarter-final second leg has touched the ball more than James. Nobody created more chances. No one has dribbled more opponents.
Was it a perfect performance? No. Was there a lack of run-up for Real’s first goal? Absolutely. But you suspect that by then James was sagging under the weight of the rest of this Chelsea squad. The fact that he finished the game seemingly in central midfield illustrates the lack of direction currently at Chelsea. AND this is Lampard keeping Chelsea from being rudderless.
Even in terms of pure mathematics, Chelsea need to sell this summer; the team is just too big. But the list of players who could be sold for more than £50m (whose stakes are currently not written off) is surprisingly short for a club that has spent a fucking ton of money. James is one of the few players on that list and probably the only one who would be wanted by the reigning or potential European champions Real Madrid and Manchester City.
Even when he’s half fit and blowing his ass out, James deserves better than this Chelsea farce.