Emotion can't cloud Chelsea's Lampard call
As Frank Lampard approaches a Chelsea exit, Ian Watson believes the club are right to ignore their fans' pleas to sign him up to a new deal.
Despite displeasure at the way their club is being run, Chelsea supporters are unlikely to encounter any sympathy outside of their own, especially from the likes of QPR, Aston Villa and Blackburn fans. Only half a season on from the euphoria of winning the Champions League, many Blues have spent the last six weeks venting their frustration in the direction of the owner whose billions bankrolled the club's finest hour. Since lifting the European Cup in Munich, match-winner and manager - both Chelsea legends - have been shown the exit, while in the opposite direction came Rafael Benitez, the boss no one wants.
On the pitch, Chelsea put up the worst defence of any Champions League holder; their Club World Cup hopes were extinguished in Japan; and while the west Londoners were in the Far East, the two Manchester clubs made a break at the top of the Premier League. If that was not bad enough for the Blues, it seems certain that another hero is about to be ruthlessly cast aside. That is how Frank Lampard's situation looks to his worshippers in the Shed End. Unlike the supporters, however, the Chelsea board have refused to allow any sentiment towards 'Super Frank' to confuse their decision-making as the end of the 34-year-old's contract looms large. And rightly so.
Even with a billionaire owner, in a new era of financial responsibility, the Blues cannot justify the cost of giving Lampard and the fans what they might want. After a decade of being propped up by Roman Abramovich, UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations mean Chelsea must fall in line with the rest of Europe and move quickly towards self-sustainability. The Blues, like Manchester City, have more to do than almost any of their domestic and continental rivals if they are to satisfy the criteria.
Last season, Chelsea recorded their first profit of the Abramovich era - a modest £1.4million - and despite the figures generally heading in the right direction to satisfy UEFA's eventual requirements, plenty of work remains ahead. Last season's figures did not include the £57million paid for Eden Hazard and Oscar, plus the club - like Di Matteo - is likely to suffer as a consequence of their Champions League group-stage exit. Indeed, after an FFP audit by UEFA last year - a test the Blues failed - the club's finance director, Chris Alexander, admitted:
"It was not a pretty picture."
Only an impressive commercial effort which has reaped an increase in turnover (Chelsea's is now higher than Arsenal's, despite the Gunners' advantage of playing in a far larger stadium every other week) and the shedding of high-earners such as Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka mean that Chelsea stand in a good position to meet FFP criteria for 2014/15. But if that is to remain the case, then prudence has to be sustained and Chelsea must continue to make savings on transfer fees and wages. Though the Hazard and Oscar deals may send out somewhat mixed messages about the Blues' intentions, other more budget-friendly signings, such as Demba Ba, Victor Moses, Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill give more of an indication of Chelsea's desire to cut their cloth accordingly.
That is not to say that Chelsea will not compete for the best players or, of course, managers. Falcao is among the most in-demand strikers in the game and the Blues will be jostling at the front of the queue for the Colombian's signature, especially since assets such as Thibaut Courtois and/or Fernando Torres could be used to reduce the amount of finance required to tempt Atletico Madrid to sell. But around marquee signings such as Falcao and Hazard, the club must look to fill their squad with cheap, young and hungry talent.
Which brings us back to Lampard. The England midfielder currently earns around £150,000 per week, which comfortably puts him in the bracket of Chelsea's highest-paid stars. However, Lampard is now little more than a squad player. After a decade of being one of the first names on the Chelsea team-sheet, he finds himself on the periphery of the first XI, as an £8million-a-year stand-in. So used to dominating games and dictating the tempo, Lampard has had to curtail his attacking instincts somewhat to reinvent himself as a screening midfielder while Chelsea have moved towards a 4-2-3-1.
The role requires someone who can win possession and effectively retain it. But statistics back up the argument that, fine player though he remains, Lampard is far from the most effective candidate in either category. With a pass accuracy rate of 81.5% this season, Lampard is 14th on the list of the most accurate passers in the Chelsea squad, while he is joint 10th with striker Moses when it comes to tackles per game (0.92).
The position clearly does not play to Lampard's strengths, especially against top-class opposition, and there are others in the squad more suited to the role, namely Ramires, David Luiz, John Obi Mikel. Lampard's supporters point not to performance indicators, but to match results. Chelsea have won 10 of the 12 Premier League matches the 34-year-old has featured in this season, but have dropped 17 points in the eight games in which he has not appeared. Those numbers, though, do not tell the whole story. Chelsea opposed only one team - Everton - in the top half of the Premier League in the five wins and a draw which Lampard has started, while the midfielder played a total of only 39 minutes in the other five victories.
Without Lampard, Chelsea have faced teams in the top half of the table in six of those eight games, with the other two matches being hard-fought London derbies against Fulham and West Ham. As one of the last remaining links to the pre-Abramovich Chelsea, it is perhaps understandable that the club's supporters are having a hard time coming to terms with the board's business-minded approach to their club legend. Even Terry has made clear his 'devastation' at the prospect of saying goodbye to his stand-in skipper. The captain suggested last week that the Blues honour Lampard by retiring the number eight shirt. Cynics, though, may read between the lines and believe that perhaps Terry is anticipating a similar tribute with his number 26 next summer, when he will find himself in Lampard's current position.
Ashley Cole, like Lampard, is a year ahead of Terry but the 32-year-old has received - and rejected - a one-year offer. The club is unlikely to return to Cole with a longer fixed term than the 12 months they have already put forward, though a compromise will surely be reached to appease their first-choice left-back. Lampard is certainly no longer as indispensable as Cole and the lack of any contract offer reflects that. Perhaps, though, that is in the midfielder's interest too. He will be 35 by the time next season kicks off, so one last adventure awaits before retirement. Sir Alex Ferguson has been a long-time admirer and as he prepares to say goodbye to his own stalwarts, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, maybe the Manchester United boss sees value in Lampard. But MLS appears the most likely destination. Los Angeles Galaxy have yet to fill David Beckham's Designated Player slot, and it seems unlikely Lampard would not be attracted to a USA adventure. Perhaps there is more than money behind Chelsea's desire to see the back of Lampard.
The midfielder's clashes with Andre Villas-Boas, apparently, have not been forgotten by Abramovich, who has spent the last year proving it is he, not the players, who calls the shots at Stamford Bridge. Regardless of the owner's feelings towards his club's vice-captain, the facts are these: Chelsea owe Lampard nothing more than gratitude - certainly not a contract extension - and the club have to put their money to more efficient use than just satisfying the sentimentality of their disgruntled supporters.
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