Six months is an achingly long time in football and perhaps it is appropriate that Chelsea’s last encounter with Manchester United now has an air of the uncanny about it.
Chelsea had the lion’s share of possession on the opening day of the season at Old Trafford, dominated midfield and saw two shots come back off the post. United, meanwhile, played on the counter and won 4-0. On Monday night the two teams come together again, and Frank Lampard hopes he has taken the right lessons from that strange day.
“It wasn’t a 4-0 game”, the Chelsea manager said when considering the rematch. “I’d be the first to criticise myself, or us, or to ask that we look at ourselves [if it was] and I was honest with the players afterwards. I said: ‘Let’s not walk away from the small details that made it a 4-0. But don’t take this as a big kick in the teeth because, in terms of performance, it shouldn’t be.’
“Three or four days later we went toe to toe with the best team in the country by a mile this season [Liverpool] and possibly should have won the [European] Super Cup,” Lampard added. “So I didn’t find the United result a seminal moment or think wow, we’ve lost 4-0. It didn’t feel nice on the day and it would be great to correct it on Monday, but at the same time I didn’t take it as a huge hurtful thing.”
Chelsea have not had a perfect season but as they get ready to welcome United they remain in fourth place in the Premier League table, a position they have held for much of the season. Next week, they will return to Champions League action in their round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich. And, after enduring a transfer embargo for the summer window, Lampard also announced his first signing for the club this week, Hakim Ziyech from Ajax. For all the pressure that can come to bear on the west London club, there are still many reasons to be cheerful.
“I don’t think you should speak about [the league table] too much because you end up with your eyes everywhere,” Lampard added. “But I don’t think it’s the worst motivational tool for all of us to really understand the situation, because I have a deep sense of pride about wanting to get fourth place.”
That pride comes in part from a realisation that the challenges to Chelsea’s current position come not just from United and Spurs, next weekend’s visitors to Stamford Bridge. United are six points behind Chelsea with 13 games to play, and so are Wolves. Sheffield United meanwhile are just two points back and, for an Everton side resurgent under Carlo Ancelotti, the gap is five points.
“The landscape is tougher in terms of picking up points, as you can see from the totals in and around ourselves,” Lampard said. “Maybe for us, in a usual year, we would not be so happy [with our points total] but this year it looks a lot different with points being taken off different teams.”
“It’s a changing of the Premier League, slightly. Teams now can invest a lot of money. You can get promoted to the Premier League, spend a £100m and it doesn’t guarantee you success. That’s the kind of challenging times that we’re talking about. But challenge is a good thing.”
The immediate challenge, however, is from United. “I think they have added in a couple of positions in the window, but they are a good team anyway,” Lampard said. “They are always going to be a threat to the top four with the players in their squad. I don’t know what to expect, none of us do. But I do expect a tough game for us on Monday and of course a direct rival. We have to take that into account.”