Real Madrid should fast-track Operation Reece James; he deserves better than Chelsea

Reece James and Toni Kroos

When your starting XI contains only one player who has scored more than two goals this season – and that one player is an oft-comedically bad finisher – then you should not be surprised if goals are not forthcoming. Chelsea caretaker boss Frank Lampard picked as many Frank Lampards as he was allowed against Real Madrid, opting for grunt and graft over guile, though the kick in the nuts was that none of his Frank Lampards could finish remotely like the original.

Lampard’s tactic of flooding the pitch with energy rather than innovation almost threatened to work but the big chances fell to N’Golo Kante and Marc Cucurella, and by the time Raheem Sterling, Joao Felix and Mykhaylo Mudryk climbed off the bench, Real Madrid’s first big chance had fallen to Rodrygo and the tie was effectively over. Even avoiding a fourth straight defeat was a task too taxing for this particular iteration of Chelsea.

The exception for Chelsea was – as it so often is – Reece James. If his struggles in the opening leg in Madrid had extended the waiting list for Operation Reece James, then the second leg might see it fast-tracked. James has not quite dazzled in the months since his return from injury but at Stamford Bridge he was central to everything Chelsea were trying to achieve – directing play, demanding the ball, easing past Real Madrid players, delivering crosses. After spending millions upon millions, Chelsea’s best player is still their homegrown right-back.

Even with a lengthy contract, James is still reportedly viewed as gettable by Real Madrid, who know Chelsea may need to sell ‘free’ players this summer. And there is no ‘free’ player more valuable than James, who deserves better than to be playing mid-table Premier League football under a manager sacked by a relegation-threatened club. He might love Chelsea but you suspect he would love playing in this gilded Real Madrid side too.

No player on either side of this Champions League quarter-final second leg touched the ball more than James. Nobody created more chances. Nobody dribbled past more opposition players.

Was it a perfect performance? No. Was there a lack of tracking-back for the first Real goal? Absolutely. But you suspect that by that point, James was buckling under the weight of the rest of this Chelsea side. The fact that he ended the game seemingly in central midfield illustrates the lack of direction currently at Chelsea. And this is Lampard preventing Chelsea being rudderless.

Even in terms of pure mathematics, Chelsea need to sell this summer; the squad is simply too big. But the list of players who could be sold for more than £50m (whose fees are not currently being amortised) is surprisingly short for a club that has spent a metric f***-tonne of money. James is one of the few players on that list and probably the only one who would be wanted by the reigning or potential European champions of Real Madrid and Manchester City.

Even when half-fit and blowing out of his arse, James deserves better than this Chelsea farce.