Injuries to key men contributed to a dreadful night for Frank Lampard’s Blues, who conceded ground in the race for the top four
Chelsea had until now avoided the chaos of no-man’s land, having been in the top four of the Premier League since September. But now, after defeat at home to Manchester United, they face the realistic prospect of being sucked into a Champions League qualification dogfight that extends down to 10th-place Arsenal.
A prolonged malaise has led Chelsea to this position. They have suffered poor results since the end of November, a six-game winning run now only a distant memory. Two consecutive defeats to United this season have now become three.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men first delivered the goods in a low-quality game when Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s brilliant cross was wonderfully headed in by Anthony Martial.
It was a significant blow and Chelsea were furious having watched Harry Maguire seemingly kick out at Michy Batshuayi in an off-field tussle in Lampard’s technical area just moments earlier.
Maguire would kill the game later on, heading in from a Bruno Fernandes corner. Fernandes was a player that Lampard called world-class on transfer deadline day, having been told he would get no one in until the summer.
Still, there was further ill-fortune in the second half, with Kurt Zouma’s goal ruled out by VAR for a push by Cesar Azpilicueta. The captain may complain that he himself was pushed by Fred on the set-piece but that changed nothing in referee Anthony Taylor’s eyes.
Chelsea were indeed unlucky but they weren’t good enough to ensure victory regardless of refereeing decisions. They are now deserving of their spot among the mid-table clubs despite being 12 points clear of them in November.
VAR also ruled Olivier Giroud offside on a late goal which led to United fans chanting in favour of the technology. The travelling Reds acknowledged that they got on the right side of the fine margins.
Chelsea now find themselves among a weak United side, Arsenal and Tottenham – who both lost their managers this season – and Wolves and Sheffield United in a jostle for a Champions League spot.
All these sides are further emboldened by UEFA’s decision to ban Manchester City for Financial Fair Play (FFP) breaches but getting into Europe by default would hardly be a glorious commendation of Lampard’s work.
Chelsea’s task is made all the more difficult with an incredibly tough run of games to come. Tottenham can go above Chelsea with a win on Saturday afternoon to compound Lampard’s problems. Then the Blues face Bayern Munich in the Champions League, with Liverpool and Everton to follow back in the English top tier.
They will look hopefully to the treatment table for a boost, with all of Tammy Abraham, N’Golo Kante, Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen now injured. They tried to sign Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech in January, but will only get hold of him in the summer instead.
They may bemoan their luck but the cold hard facts are that United have closed the gap to three points after a league double against Chelsea. Tottenham are just one point behind now with Chelsea on a four-game winless run.
A lifeline for Solskjaer is a hammer blow for Lampard. He now prepares for battle among a cluster of clubs in the final third of the season, with Bayern Munich and many selection headaches to come in the immediate future.