Everything was in place for this to go horribly wrong.
The rain was multi-purpose, adding both a slickness to the Stamford Bridge pitch to encourage mistakes and creating that eerie mist you normally see in those gritty Sky Atlantic detective series. You know the one: sombre string music, pained close-ups and invariably the badly mutilated body of a small-town girl who had her whole life in front of her.
Lille, the whipping boys of Group H, had themselves a free hit. Chelsea, by contrast, carried all the risk and expectation. As the game moved into the final 10 minutes, a deep sense of dread was thrown into the mix.
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A home win that should have been rubber-stamped long before was now, thanks to a Loic Remy strike, just another goal away from parity. With Valencia winning 1-0 over Ajax, a draw in west London would have meant qualification for both sides in Amsterdam.
Perhaps Christophe Galtier knew he was stirring the pot when he leant over to the neighbouring technical area to ask Frank Lampard if he knew what the score was in the other match. He did, of course, and it only added to the anxiousness building up inside of him as domination morphed into desperation right in front of him. Not to mention the cursed 2-0 lead.
Yet, despite playing to type by making the game more interesting than it should have been, despite Lille gunning for an equaliser and despite a palpable sense of inevitability of what could have been a third demoralising result in a row, there was no nightmare ending. Chelsea came through and will grace last 16 of the Champions League once more.
Lampard was almost slumped over the table in his post-match press conference: thrilled to have crossed the line, angry the result was ever in doubt after urging his players to step-up in the second half and fed up of continually having to put his nerves through the ringer. The joy of becoming the first Englishman to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League as a manager and a player was lost on him. “I’m a bit tired of saying that,” he puffed when assessing Chelsea’s latest attempt at making things unnecessarily hard for themselves.
But it would be wrong to use this match, particularly the nervy finish, and extrapolate that Chelsea have scraped through. However wasteful they are in front of goal and disorganised when under pressure at the back, there is a spirt among the squad that has been evident across the group stages.
At the time, defeat in the opening match at home to Valencia felt like a rude awakening. A young side had taken the Premier League by storm, but how seriously could they be taken at this level? Not very if those 90 minutes were anything to go by. They were out-hustled and out-thought and there was a sense of a lack of tactical maturity had lost it. Ross Barkley’s missed penalty was salt in the wounds.
Yet they rallied impressively, picking up wins at Lille and Ajax – the first time they had picked up successive away wins in this competition since 2013. Victory over last year’s semi-finalists was undoubtedly the standout. They were defensively sound, giving little away to such an extent that the Dutch had to wait till the 60th minute to register their first shot on target.
Yet while they weren’t able to match that solidity when they hosted Ajax and then travelled to the Mestalla, they were at least able to match the six goals they conceded across the two fixtures. On both occasions they recovered from going behind and went away as the unhappier of the two to be leaving with just a point, as valuable as they were.
Truly though, the reason Chelsea are through to the knockout stages and why they were able to go unbeaten away from home in a group many had them pencilled in for third-place is because when the matches at Lille, Amsterdam and Valencia descended into a slugging match, they were the ones who were most at home. For all the normality Lampard craves, learning to harness the chaos of their ways is what has seen them through.
This is something Lampard cannot really laud directly because it flies in the face of what is needed to secure the club’s footing in the top four which has started to become unsteady in recent weeks. And with Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Juventus and RB Leipzig lurking in the next round, this adventure could just as easily end at the next hurdle. “We know that once you get to the next stage how cut throat it’ll be,” Lampard said as he looked to hammer home the necessity to quell the inherent bedlam coursing through his side.
But those first-placed teams will fear Chelsea’s untameables. As much as you can sift through the flaws they possess because of their juvenile traits, you must also acknowledge the brazenness that comes with it. For many of the players, particularly the young English contingent such as Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount who have featured in the six matches so far, their formative Champions League moments are happening right now. Though there have been struggles, they bear no scars.
The novelty of the competition is still fresh and yet the importance of it, what it means to the club and the fans, is not lost on them either. And they will go into Monday’s draw hoping for RB Leipzig or Juventus, but without fearing the competition’s super clubs.
“We should embrace whoever we get,” said Lampard when potential high-profile opponents were put to him.
As was the case on Tuesday night with Lille only registering two shots on target. Chelsea’s issue is not that they concede a lot of chances but that they concede from what few chances their opposition creates. In the weeks until the first leg of the round of 16 the 41-year old will look to future-proof his side for the rigours of elite knockout football against higher calibre teams capable of creating many more problems.
But his most important task will be doing so without sacrificing the team’s free-wheeling nature. That, ultimately, is what has got them here in the first place.