Neil Humphreys: Chelsea’s loss must be Manchester United’s gain
Spiralling Blues risk falling out of EPL's top five
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer isn’t a vindictive man, but Chelsea’s heavy defeat in the Champions League might have afforded him a giggle.
Heaven knows the Manchester United manager hasn’t had much to smile about this season, but the Blues’ collapse against Bayern Munich yesterday morning (Singapore time) offers hope.
Fourth spot is there for the taking.
Of course, finishing fifth in the English Premier League may be enough to secure passage to the Champions League, but United should set their sights higher.
As they look up, they might see a gaggle of confused kids on their way down. The Blues are in free fall.
Only the most hopeful Chelsea supporter seriously entertained getting a positive result against the Bundesliga champions, even at home, but the 3-0 loss was the culmination of a season-long trudge.
Manager Frank Lampard has manfully papered over the cracks, filling holes with a combination of youth, endeavour and the feel-good factor of a club legend’s homecoming.
Solskjaer attempted something similar at Old Trafford, promising a return to the good old days with academy kids.
But the game has moved on. The wealth divide is now so pronounced that even if a Class of 92 were cloned tomorrow, there’s no guarantee that United would immediately return to the cash-soaked summit.
Similarly, Chelsea’s transfer ban and owner Roman Abramovich’s dwindling interest in his London toy have stretched the divide to a point that Mason Mount, Reece James and Tammy Abraham could never cover.
There’s nothing quite as captivating as a homespun tale of local boys made good, except that there is. He’s called Robert Lewandowski. He’s a goal-creating machine spawned from a Polish lab engineering No. 9s.
Chelsea’s answer to Lewandowski was Olivier Giroud, which assumes the question must have been: “Who’s a workmanlike striker that makes Lewandowski look like a living god?”
That’s not a criticism of Giroud, but a fair reflection of Chelsea’s current status, which has been artificially inflated by the levelling out of the EPL’s top six (once Liverpool and Manchester City are removed from the equation).
As the EPL is essentially a two-team model at the moment, the rest fall back into a rather generic pool of mediocrity.
Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur. United beat Chelsea. And Arsenal beat United to give the illusion of a close, elite competition, when it’s more of a mishmash of average sides defeating each other in an entertaining circus of inconsistency.
They are cancelling each other out. Earlier in the season, Chelsea benefited from the stalemate among fallen giants. As United, Arsenal and Tottenham toiled, the Blues unleashed their kids to impressive effect, out-running opponents like tongue-flapping puppies.
But the puppies are out of puff now and Lampard is short on pit bulls. Mount, James and Abraham were committed, but outclassed against Bayern, which was hardly their fault. They missed N’Golo Kante.
Lampard’s class of 2020 are without a teacher, or even a half-decent relief teacher. Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson- Odoi are also injured. And Ross Barkley remains a 26-year-old prodigy trying to live up to his teenage potential.
Lampard is also lumbered with an unreliable defence. Lewandowski humiliated the back three, tearing them apart as if they were pillows.
Chelsea couldn’t stop Alphonso Davies or Serge Gnabry and they won’t stop United at this rate.
The Red Devils face tougher fixtures, including Manchester City, Tottenham and Sheffield United, but the Blues appear to be running on empty.
Like Solskjaer, Lampard knows that the club legend act has a limited shelf life if performances lose their lustre. Home defeats against Bayern are understandable, but less palatable after home losses against Bournemouth, Southampton and West Ham United.
His current squad are about as far away from his 2012 Champions League winners as Solskjaer’s lot are from his 1999 Treble winners. But even then, the Red Devils are models of consistency compared to the erratic Blues.
Chelsea have won only five of their last 15 EPL games. Momentum has shifted to Manchester. As the Bayern loss demonstrated, Lampard is stuck with weary kids and an overworked template. They are too tired to press and too unreliable at the back.
There’s no Plan B until reinforcements can be signed. There’s not even a reliable goalkeeper, with Lampard unwilling to trust record-signing Kepa Arrizabalaga.
If anything, Bayern’s easy victory forces Lampard to simplify his priorities. This season’s Champions League is over. Only next season matters now.
What happens in the second leg in Munich will be far less important than what happens in the EPL in the coming weeks.
Chelsea may be higher in the table, but United have the upper hand.