Frank Lampard’s Chelsea homecoming ruined as Leicester snatch a point thanks to Wilfred Ndidi header
SEVEN minutes of euphoria, followed by 83 minutes of cold, hard reality.
After the flags, the banners, the songs of praise and the wave of early optimism, Frank Lampard’s homecoming ended with a grim sense of foreboding gripping Stamford Bridge.
On the day of his unveiling last month, Lampard had claimed that his legendary status as a Chelsea player would serve him for ‘only five minutes’ once the season got under way – and he wasn’t far wrong.
This is a Chelsea squad ill-equipped to compete in both the Premier League and Champions League – comfortably the thinnest and least starry of the Roman Abramovich era.
A team which was outplayed by Leicester City for the final hour of this match and one which will struggle to finish above Brendan Rodgers’ Foxes, let alone reach the top four.
As the club’s all-time leading goalscorer and Champions League-winning captain, Lampard will receive a decent helping of patience.
And the desire of the Blues faithful to witness the blossoming of youth products was obvious when Tammy Abraham was roared on to the pitch as a second-half sub – to little avail.
The idea that Lampard could harness the emotion and romance which surrounded his return and spur this inexperienced squad on to great deeds was always fanciful.
Nostalgia ain’t what it used it to be. At Chelsea, it ain’t even what it promised to be eight days ago.
This starting line-up read like the sort of side Chelsea used to field in the League Cup.
In the last 12 months, they have lost several world-renowned names – the sainted Eden Hazard, David Luiz, Cesc Fabregas as well as the misfiring strikers Alvaro Morata and loanee Gonzalo Higuain.
Thanks to their transfer ban, imposed for irregularities in the signing of young players, youth has been given a rare chance.
The only trouble is that Chelsea’s two brightest young talents – Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are currently injured.
And apart from those two, only centre-half Antonio Rudiger was absent from this, a third successive winless game under Lampard.
The 41-year-old darling of the Bridge got this gig after just one season in management because of his old club’s reduced circumstances – but he is perhaps only now realising quite how tough this season will be.
Unless Chelsea can lift their transfer ban before January, it is unlikely to get much easier.
Lampard will hope that kids such as goalscorer Mason Mount will grow in stature but there is precious little world-class talent around to help nurture the kids.
Despite a 4-0 gubbing at Manchester United and a strength-sapping penalty shoot-out defeat by Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup in Istanbul, there had been much positive energy at the Bridge.
As kick-off approached, we had a ‘Welcome Home Super Frank’ banner on The Shed and a ‘Frank Lampard’s blue and white army’ on the Matthew Harding Stand.
And the PA announcer referred to ‘Frank Lampard’s Chelsea’ – just as ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby’ was always mentioned last term.
It had been five years since Lampard had been at his old playground wearing a Chelsea badge over his ticker and he was given a welcome which befitted his immense playing achievements.
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And what a start it was for Chelsea.
In the first minute, Pedro volleyed into the side-netting, with half the stadium believing he’d scored.
In the second minute, Kapser Schemeichel pulled off a double save to deny Mount and Christian Pulisic.
In the third minute, Ricardo Pereira hacked off the line from a corner.
And on seven minutes, Mount made the breakthrough, hounding a dawdling Wilfried Ndidi as Leicester tried to casually play it out from the back and firing past an immobile Schmeichel.
“That opening spell was how we want to play,” said Lampard.
But the energy levels soon dipped, while Leicester woke up and began to look a far more fluent and settled team.
N’Golo Kante, whose extraordinary dynamism is now Chelsea’s most redeeming positive feature, shot wide after a cute Olivier Giroud back-heel.
But after that, Leicester were dominant – Jamie Vardy almost caught out Kepa Arrizabalaga, James Maddison rounded Kepa but couldn’t finish.
And midway through the second half, Ndidi made up for his early brainstorm by getting in front of Cesar Azpilicueta and thumping home a near-post header from a Madison corner.
Leicester squandered two glaring chances to win it.
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First Maddison picked up a Christian Fuchs pass, weaved his way into the box only to blaze over.
And then Vardy dragged wide from Maddison’s through-ball.
Youri Tielemans forced Kepa to beat away his shot after a rapid break and if Leicester had snatched victory, they would certainly have deserved it.
As for Chelsea, a performance which began with such promise ended with Kurt Zouma ballooning a hopelessly-optimistic shot over from 35 yards.
Lampard refused to blame the fatigue from that midweek trip to Turkey and he thanked supporters for their warm welcome.
But Chelsea’s manager is a hard-nosed and realistic man.
He knows full well that romance doesn’t win you football matches.