The hoopla surrounding Lampard and Torres still Chelsea subplots
Despite a pair of big wins recently, the spotlight on Chelsea remains intense
Debate as to how much of a role midfielder Frank Lampard still has to play
Transfer speculation continues to surround out-of-form striker Fernando Torres
There's being contrary, and then there is ignoring Chelsea this week. The club is rarely out of the British newspapers at the moment -- like a boyband struggling to match its platinum-album past for longer than the odd stadium chorus -- thanks primarily to a number of public displays of disaffection. Sitting out the whole of Chelsea's win over Manchester City this past Monday, Fernando Torres was a picture of gloom; Frank Lampard is unhappy with a cameo role; in Friday's tabloids there is talk that Didier Drogba, who wants a two-year contract extension but has so far been offered only 12 months, might opt for a lucrative move to China (where Nicolas Anelka will be earning £10 million/$15M a year after signing for Shanghai Shenhua). A time of transition? Even the Destiny's Child lineup changed more smoothly than this.
Part -- perhaps much -- of the responsibility for the sense of messiness at Chelsea, where the storylines are often rather more diverting than the soccer, lies with the press, which has adopted a binary system of assessment. Lampard is either past it (this camp is helped by performances such as the hour he played against Newcastle, in which he was comfortably outplayed by Ramires, who was excellent that day, and Oriol Romeu) or still Chelsea's linchpin (on the basis, pretty much, of the penalty he smashed past Joe Hart to beat City less than 10 minutes after coming off the bench). The middle ground lies fallow.
Lampard hasn't helped, however, by taking to the role of slighted diva with such compelling aplomb. The incensed flounce into the dugout at St James' Park, followed by half an hour of concentrated jaw flexing might have gone down as a powerful moment of self-flagellation in itself, but he played his hand after scoring the winner on Monday: Macduff did not mount the ramparts at Glamis with such a bristling sense of vengeance as Lampard in his badge-slapping celebration, and he went on to tell reporters that the manager, Andre Villas-Boas, had not spoken to him about why he was not playing regularly.
Chelsea midfield: minutes on the pitch in the Premier League this season (courtesy of Opta)
Ramires -- 1176
Lampard -- 1043
Mata -- 953
John Obi Mikel -- 785
Raul Meireles -- 613
Florent Malouda -- 459
Romeu -- 295
Josh McEachran -- 7
Yossi Benayoun -- 1
Yet, in fact, only Ramires has played more minutes in Chelsea's midfield so far this season. It feels almost as though Lampard is keen to take advantage of a media narrative in which, if he is not past it, he must be vitally important; there are reports this week that he is seeking to renew a contract that will already keep him at Chelsea until he is 35, with comments from his advisers stressing his importance to the club's brand. Good dice, given Lampard's popularity with Chelsea fans, but in response, Villas-Boas put him firmly back in his box.
"Frank is not the only one [pushing for a starting place]. Everyone wants to be involved in every game but sometimes it is not possible," he said, before delivering the real stinger: "There is no hiding that Lamps represents the best in the history of the club. He and [John Terry], are near to 600 or 550 appearances. These are players of a massive magnitude for the club and represent Chelsea's success, but in our opinion every player must be treated equally and we try to be as fair and coherent as possible. Sometimes we make decisions that cannot please everybody, because it's a 24-man squad. That is the reality of football and there are no explanations."
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it! It's a shame, though, that the focus on whether or not Lampard deserves a heart-to-heart with his manager before being left on the bench has sidelined discussions as to why it is happening in the first place. Villas-Boas isn't sharing game time around simply to be democratic; the trio of Ramires, Romeu and Meireles is proving to be more exciting than it looks on paper. Though they have all played a more defensive role at times in the past, Ramires and Meireles like to stretch their legs and Romeu's canny use of the ball allows that to happen at the kind of pace that characterizes Chelsea at their pulsating best. Against City, if Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure failed to anticipate a burst at goal, they could not keep up with it. Ramires may not be "the complete central midfield player" that Kaka described when Chelsea signed him from Benfica in summer 2010, but he is the Premier League's most successful dribbler, forcing Chelsea into opposition territory even when they sit deeper, as they did versus Newcastle.
And so to Torres, whose dithering in the box at least allowed him to set up Chelsea's second against Newcastle. According to the binary system, he is either a) a fortuitous shin-shank away from glorious revival, or b) a few home truths away from oblivion. The primary exponents of the first option are a selection of Liverpool fans who are starting to fancy he could return to Anfield and form a deadly partnership with Luis Suarez (especially at £20 million/$30M, the figure erroneously bandied about this week), and the Chelsea manager, who not only thinks the striker will come good to the tune of £50 million ($80M), but is apparently prepared to give him another year to do so. In reality, though, signs will have to come sooner than that.
Assuming Drogba decides against a spell in China's Super League (and given how genuinely great a difference he can still make to a Chelsea performance -- see the recent 3-0 win over Valencia -- it would make far less sense than Anelka's departure, or the suggestion that Lampard might join the L.A. Galaxy), he will miss at least three weeks of Premier League action in the new year on international duty with Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations. That window will be of critical importance to Torres, who should find himself starting with Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge.
"[Torres'] is a talent that is never in doubt," said Villas-Boas, apparently not a keen reader of the back pages. In addition to the general flimsiness of his performances on the pitch for Chelsea, much has understandably been made of Torres' reaction to beating Manchester City, a result that revived some credibility to Chelsea's title challenge. While the rest of the club's staff and players leapt about, Torres immediately made to pick up his kit and head inside. When Villas-Boas says "I think he is ready, mentally," it is tempting to wonder what might have to give to restore genuine contentment.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-author of Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.
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