‘Europe’ has become a buzzword in all sectors of society ever since COVID-19 came crashing down across the continent. Numerous countries became the epicentre for the pandemic as borders rapidly began to close. Trading and travel took a turn for the worse. Even the European Championships were postponed until next summer in fear of the virus.
However, European football is now firmly on the mind of Chelsea, who can begin to envisage again life in the most converted domestic competition after the Premier League’s eventual return. ‘Project Restart’ commenced with a fizzle rather than a bang for the Blues, edging past Aston Villa 2-1 in their first competitive action since early March.
Back up and running, Frank Lampard can now turn his attention to attaining Champions League football next campaign, currently fronting the race by a slender margin. With his squad bolstering by the day, which players will ensure the Blues retain their European status and ensures their treasured manager success during his maiden spell as manager.
It may seem unfair to place such a burden on these young shoulders, but Mason Mount has already matured into one of, if not the, key cog in Chelsea’s transitional cycle under Lampard. The trust is clearly there between the pair, built from their brief spell at Derby County and developed further in London. Mount has now played 42 matches in all competitions this campaign, an extraordinary amount for someone who only recently celebrated his 21st birthday.
Not that this has phased the young superstar during his debut campaign in the top flight. If anything, it has propelled the midfielder to outshine his fellow senior professionals, proving to Gareth Southgate he was a worthy candidate to board the plane for England had the Euros gone ahead.
His place is pretty secure if he continues his upwards trajectory, and putting in performances like he did against Villa will not hurt his cause in the slightest. Mount was the link between midfield and the forwards, drifting into clever pockets and aiding the attack whenever possible, the type of player the national team have been screaming out for. He is also Chelsea’s main goal threat, behind Tammy Abraham, currently the joint second highest goal scorer with six, and second for total shots attempted (69). Youthful exuberance will be vital in the remaining fixtures as tiredness inevitably kicks in; combine this with genuine talent, and Mount has all the ingredients to push Chelsea over the European line.
From one end of the spectrum to the other, experience will be just as crucial for Chelsea in overcoming their rivals and picking up results. Who better to lead them into battle than Cesar Azpilicueta? The Blues longest serving squad member has enjoyed the highs and suffered the lows since his arrival in 2012, playing alongside, and learning from, the best along the way.
He is now one of the elder statesmen in the side and the epitome of consistency, a worthy Chelsea captain and a true example to the younger contingent, let alone the rest of the squad. Not only is he the Blues best defender, the Spaniard has also proven himself as threat in the final third. Unexpectedly perhaps, he has provided more assists in the league than any of his team mates (five, joint with Willian), doubling down against Villa from both the right and left flank.
More crucially however are his defence statistics, top in: tackles made (65), shots blocked (16), crosses blocked (11), passes blocked (26) and second for interceptions (52), clearances (63) and aerial duals won (79). Clearly, Chelsea’s kryptonite is their back-line, highlighted by the simple goal scored by Dean Smith’s side on Sunday, therefore now more than ever Azpilicueta has to step up and start demanding more from his comrades.
Turning to Tammy Abraham in this time of need seems like the obvious solution going forward, and indeed he is set to be the main striker as long as Lampard is at the helm. However, injuries have began to creep into the 22-year olds game, coinciding with the fact he has only netted twice since the 29th of December, stuck on the unlucky tally of 13 as he watched from the bench with Olivier Giroud starting at Villa Park on the weekend.
Giroud has not always been in favour; he looked set to depart in the transfer window before he signed a contract extension in May, keeping the World Cup winner at Stamford Bridge until next season, highlighting his worth for the short-term future at least. Chelsea rarely offer deals to those in their 30s - Giroud now approaching 34- yet he has repaid the faith intrusted in him by the higher powers with consecutive standout displays upfront.
The striker has only started on seven occasions in 2019/20, although six of those have come in Chelsea’s last half dozen fixtures. In this period, Giroud has bagged three goals and was only on the loosing side once, the 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. He scored in both victories pre and post lockdown and he looked revitalised having spent the majority of his Chelsea career on the side-lines. His ability to bring others into the game is missing in Abraham, a vitally important trait considering the plethora of attacking potential around him. Giroud may eventually lose his spot to the younger, shinier model, but for now he is leading the line with great purpose.