IT’S the most wonderful time of the year.
That time when we all start trying to second-guess the intentions of Roman Abramovich, a billionaire Russian riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
A secretive oligarch, as likely to mouth off in public as Sooty bear or Marcel Marceau.
Even when Chelsea’s owner was a regular match-goer, we tended to talk about him as if he were some Old Testament God, ready to strike down under-achieving managers with lightning bolts from the blue.
Many inside Chelsea speak about him in a similar vein.
More so now that Abramovich is in exile — and they don’t even get to read his facial expressions while Chelsea are having their backsides handed to them on a plate.
The popular caricature of Abramovich is of a wildly unpredictable and ruthless megalomaniac, hiring and firing managers on a whim.
So when Frank Lampard’s team were taken apart by Manchester City on Sunday, for their fourth Premier League defeat in six games, it was easy to imagine that Abramovich — having coughed up £220million on players last summer — would instantly feel the old itch in his trigger finger.
Sure, Lampard is the club’s all-time record scorer and Champions League-winning captain.
And yes, his first season had been a limited success, reaching the top four after a transfer ban.
But if you judge him by Abramovich’s unique standards, then surely Lampard is on borrowed time?
Yet the history of Abramovich’s reign is not as simple as that.
Only once in the last eight years has he switched managers in mid-season — and that was Jose Mourinho in December 2015, during that campaign of Eva Carneiro and ‘palpable discord’ and Chelsea in an actual relegation battle.
And only once has Abramovich been clearly wrong to sack a manager — when Carlo Ancelotti bought it in a Goodison Park corridor in 2011, having finished as a Premier League runner-up and having won the Double in free-flowing style 12 months earlier.
Even when Abramovich was firing managers at an unusually rapid rate, between Mourinho’s first sacking in 2007 and his return in 2013, he was often extremely reluctant to do so.
Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo and ‘Big Phil’ Scolari — who was actually only normal size — were victims of significant shows of player power, which Abramovich had initially tried to stare down.
Two of the most vocal members of that opinionated but highly-successful dressing room were Lampard himself and, even more so, Petr Cech, who is now Chelsea’s influential, vaguely-titled ‘technical and performance advisor’.
The great irony for Lampard is that he desperately needs some outspoken senior pros.
Witness Chelsea up close in this behind-closed-doors era and it is striking how quiet they are — probably the quietest team in the Premier League.
Yet the absence of strong dressing-room characters will also preclude any of Lampard’s players from rocking the boat and influencing Abramovich.
This is not to suggest that Lampard is as safe as houses.
Should Chelsea continue on their current trajectory and lose touch with the top four — and especially if they are beaten by Atletico Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League — then Lampard will not last the season. Chelsea signed six good players last summer but expected that it would take time for a new-look team to gel.
Yet Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech have regressed after showing early promise, while £70m Kai Havertz, who is only 21 and suffered a nasty bout of Covid, has made no impact so far.
Thiago Silva looked 36 against City, keeper Edouard Mendy is an upgrade on the hapless Kepa Arrizabalaga but no world-beater and Ben Chilwell has been reasonable overall.
Lampard seems unsure of his best team, has chopped and changed at Claudio Ranieri ‘tinkerman’ levels and has often made curious decisions on substitutions. Werner had been struggling at wide-left, then struggled throughout 90 minutes at centre-forward against City, while Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham were left on the bench.
So Lampard, with the lowest win percentage of any Abramovich era manager other than AVB, is clearly now fighting for his job.
But it would be wrong to suggest that the Russian is being unusually soft on a club legend if he does afford Lampard more time.
Because the Premier League’s most mysterious figure is not really as mad, bad and dangerous as all that.
CLARITY ON COVID IS A MUST
SO Manchester City’s match with Chelsea went ahead despite at least six of Pep Guardiola’s players having tested positive for Covid.
Yet Fulham’s visit to Burnley was called off, despite an unspecified number of positives, believed to be similar to City’s toll.
Now City have more strength in depth than Fulham and they proved it in a spectacular first-half show at Stamford Bridge.
But that’s life — some Premier League clubs are far wealthier, and better able to cope with absentees, than others.
So are there different rules for different clubs? Or is there a specific number of Covid cases at a club which leads to a postponement? Or is the Premier League making it up as they go?
If we aren’t given any clarity, the League is likely to be mired in chaos and rancour for some time.
THE last time that Manchester City looked as devastating against elite opposition as they did at Chelsea on Sunday was when they stuffed Manchester United at Old Trafford in last season’s Carabao Cup semi- final first leg.
On both occasions, Pep Guardiola operated without a recognised centre-forward and watched his rampant side go 3-0 up by half-time.
So should we expect the same approach when City visit United for another semi tomorrow night?
Guardiola usually tries something self-consciously clever in marquee matches but would it be cleverer to play a centre-forward or not this time?
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