Frank Lampard has had many glorious nights in the Champions League but his first as manager was not one of them. Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat by Valencia was disappointing on many levels. Lampard’s team conceded an avoidable goal to Rodrigo after 74 minutes when the defence fell asleep at what should have been a routine free kick. Ross Barkley then missed a penalty as the minutes dwindled away. Chelsea had most of the play but inspiration in front of goal was in short supply. Group H could be an uphill struggle.
Valencia, in turmoil after Marcelino was sacked as coach last week, sat deep and allowed the home side to pile on early pressure. Cesar Azpilicueta reached the byline and gave Tammy Abraham a chance at the near post but Jasper Cillessen was alert. From the subsequent corner Marcos Alonso headed tamely towards goal. It was clear that the defenders were uncomfortable in the air.
Lampard’s team had a very attacking look. The 3-4-3 system might have been vulnerable to quick counter-attacks but Valencia’s build-up play was often slow and allowed the home team to get back in numbers. The visiting side were stodgy in possession and it was almost 20 minutes before they began to show signs of ambition.
There were indications of danger. Francis Coquelin – who poleaxed Mason Mount on the quarter hour, forcing the 20-year-old to be withdrawn for Pedro – got into space behind Alonso and put Fikayo Tomori under pressure. The move fizzled out as Valencia overelaborated on the edge of the Chelsea box. Almost immediately the home side broke and Abraham, exploiting the defence’s weakness in the air, glanced a header wide.
The Spanish side were growing stronger, though. Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic were overrun on occasion as Valencia grew bolder. Daniel Parejo was not picked up in midfield and found Rodrigo in space. The striker fired in a shot but Kevin Gameiro, lurking to pick up any rebound, blocked the effort to Kepa Arrizabalaga’s relief.
Chelsea still had their chances. Willian shot wide from outside the box and then ran on to Kovacic’s astute diagonal ball in the area but could not keep his attempt on goal down. Perdro reached the byline and crossed to Abraham, who rolled the ball back to Jorginho but the shot was charged down. On the stroke of half-time Azpilicueta found Willian unmarked in the area and the Brazilian’s strike was slapped away by Cillessen at the near post.
The second half had barely started when Abraham again rose above the defence and headed towards goal from a corner but clear-cut chances were hard to come by against a side whose first thought was to secure a point. There was a lack of wit and verve about Chelsea.
Abraham was a handful. He led the line with gusto but had little support. Dropping deep, he outjumped the defence and nodded on to Willian, who was fouled. Alonso went close with the free kick and from the subsequent corner the 28-year-old was given a free header but put it wide. Whenever the ball went over shoulder height the Valencia defence looked uncertain but the aerial bombardment never came.
Instead, Valencia went in front. Chelsea lost concetration at a free kick 25 yards out and Rodrigo ran across the body of the defence and was allowed to ease his way unmarked into the area. Alone, the winger had the simple task of flicking the ball into the net. Abraham was the closest Chelsea player and he gestured to his team-mates in exasperation. It was sloppy.
Chelsea threw everything forward to no avail. Olivier Giroud, on as a substitute, shot at the goalkeeper from the edge of the box.
Then it looked as if the aerial attack had saved Chelsea. Tomori had yet another unchallenged header from a corner but directed the ball at the hand of Daniel Wass. The referee consulted VAR and, after a long wait, awarded a penalty. Barkley stepped up and fired the spot-kick over the bar. It was hard to understand why the substitute was given the responsibility. That will be the first of the many questions Lampard has to answer.