Despite falling behind to a lucky goal and another handball call not going their way, Brighton came back to further deepen the gloom over Chelsea.
“Welcome home Super Frank”, read the banner flying from the Shed End as the teams took to the pitch for the Premier League match between Chelsea and Brighton & Hove Albion at Stamford Bridge at five to three. Whether they all still felt the same way by five to five is a different matter altogether, as Brighton put them to the sword, despite injuries and yet another VAR lack of intervention which only seems likely to further fuel the growing feeling that there is one set of rules for the ‘biggest’ clubs and another for the rest.
It’s difficult to see why Chelsea have opted for Frank Lampard to mind them through to the end of the season, other than for vibes. They came away from this match having scored a goal, but even that required a deflection of Wile E Coyote proportions, while his era had already begun with 90 minutes without a shot on target at Molineux against Wolves and singularly failing sufficiently rouse themselves for that all-important trip to Madrid, a match from which they emerged with a 2-0 defeat, not quite the point of no return in a two-legged tie, but certainly the point at which the prospect of overcoming Real Madrid starts to feel… figurative.
Within the first nine minutes Brighton had created three chances, Alex Mac Allister rippling the side netting on one side of the goal and shooting narrowly wide on the other, and Evan Ferguson thudding a shot out against the crossbar. But it was Chelsea took the first advantage with a huge slice of luck, a shot from Connor Gallagher which deflected off the foot of Lewis Dunk and completely wrong-footed goalkeeper Robert Sanchez.
Brighton were straight back on the offensive, but the Big Club represtentatives in the VAR box turned away a handball against Christian Pulisic which took the ball away from the onrushing Pervis Estupinan. Pulisic didn’t catch the ball, basketball ball dribble it the length of the pitch and slam dunk it into the Brighton goal, rather than just knocking it away from the Brighton midfielder, so protests were ignored.
It was starting to feel as though the afternoon was slipping away from them. Joel Veltman was injured and had to be replaced by Julio Encisco. Evan Ferguson suffered the same and was withdrawn in favour of Danny Welbeck. A string of excellent saves from Kepa Arrizabalaga was as much as could be done just to keep Chelsea in the game, as they were overrun in midfield by Brighton’s excellent positioning, laser-accurate passing and intelligent movement.
And Brighton’s luck did finally start to shift with an equalising goal from Welbeck, who’d barely been on the pitch for ten minutes, stretching to get to a header from a delightfully positioned Pascal Gross cross from the right. It was absolutely no less than they deserved for a first half they dominated. It’s highly likely that, high in the rafters of the East Stand, Todd Boehly was hunched over a desk with his calculator out, sweating profusely. By half-time, Brighton had enjoyed 68% possession, having had twelve shots on the Chelsea goal.
But there does come a point at which doubt starts to creep in. Brighton dominated the early stages of the second half much as they had the first to the point that Lampard made a quadruple substitution just eleven minutes in. But for all of that, the Chelsea goal continued to act as though it had a force field around it. Kepa continued to confound them, while Enciso hit the inside of the near post, only for the ball to twang back out to Welbeck at too high a velocity for the striker to be able to adjust his footing. And there was a point twenty minutes in when Sanchez was forced into a double save and it felt as though the balance of the game might even shift.
Some chance. In the 70th minute, Solly March picked up the ball on the left, cut inside and fed the ball to Enciso, who was, frankly, sick of this bullshit and sliced through all the intricate lines and delicate passes with an absolutely thunderous shot from a shade over thirty yards out which left Kepa hopelessly clutching at thin air. “You’re getting sacked in the morning”, was the taunt being aimed at Lampard by the jubilant travelling supporters.
And in response, Chelsea didn’t have anything, really. Reece James offered a little more stability in defence upon his introduction, but that wasn’t offering them very much in attacking positions and while they had more possession in the closing stages of the game as Brighton sought to run down the clock, they remained without the attacking spark they need if they’re to truly lift themselves out of their current funk. They’re simply not improving, and haven’t all season.
It is obviously unreasonable to expect any fourth manager of a club’s season to perform miracles, and it is to be hoped that the expectations of Chelsea supporters of what Frank Lampard may have been capable of achieving with this assortment of extremely expensive misfits has been tempered by the experience of his last period in charge of the club. Chelsea played this match as though their season is already over. They need a complete reboot, and that can’t really happen until the end of the season. Without a definite replacement confirmed, it seems as likely as anything else that they will continue to flounder for now.
Through the setbacks, the bad luck and the bad decision-making, Brighton continue to fight on. It remains to be seen whether they’ll have enough about them to secure European football come the end of this season, but they’re putting in an almighty scrap for it and their success should serve as a reminder to Todd Boehly that running around frantically waving bunches of cash at any passing young footballer is not the same as methodically building a team. As they return to the south coast having taken six points from Chelsea this season, they may just consider that while justice can be served in many forms, poetic is often the most satisfying.