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 season since September. But now, after defeat at home to Manchester United, they face the realistic prospect of being sucked into a dogfight with mid-table teams 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.
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 the European 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.