LEICESTER, England — If Frank Lampard is going to need Antonio Rudiger to get Chelsea out of trouble every weekend, he can probably kiss goodbye to their hopes of Champions League qualification right now.
Rudiger’s headed double earned Chelsea a 2-2 draw against Leicester City at a blustery King Power Stadium, preventing Brendan Rodgers’s third-place side from increasing the eight-point lead that they enjoy over their fourth-place London rivals, but it was hard to see it as a blueprint for future success. They were the Germany centre-back’s first goals in 13 months and his first brace since he scored twice for Stuttgart’s reserves against Hallescher in October 2012.
If Rudiger’s unlikely double stopped Chelsea from falling to what would have been a seventh defeat in 13 league games, it was not enough to spare Lampard from scrutiny over the decisions that he took at both ends of the pitch.
Lampard welcomed back top scorer Tammy Abraham after the England striker missed last weekend’s FA Cup win at Hull City with an ankle injury, but he warned before the game that the 22-year-old would have to play “with a bit of pain” and the Chelsea No. 9 did not look at his sharpest. He squandered two good chances in quick succession in the first half, first standing on the ball from Cesar Azpilicueta‘s cut-back and then failing to make contact with Reece James‘s inviting cross from the right, before fading from view in the second period.
When Abraham was withdrawn, with seven minutes remaining, Lampard’s choice of replacement was telling. It was Ross Barkley who came on, rather than Michy Batshuayi, with fellow substitute Willian moving up front from his habitual role on the wing. Olivier Giroud was once again left out of the squad entirely, his hopes of a January move to Inter Milan having fallen through.
Despite being linked with targets such as Edinson Cavani and Dries Mertens, Chelsea failed to strengthen their striking department in the transfer window and Lampard’s message here seemed to be that when Abraham is not on the pitch, he would rather play without any striker at all than turn to the ones at his disposal. The Chelsea manager said Giroud’s omission was nothing to do with what had happened in the transfer window and explained that he had opted for Barkley and Willian rather than Batshuayi due to a desire to “get a bit more ball” in attacking areas.
Lampard has lamented Chelsea’s lack of quality at both ends of the pitch this season and after the attacking profligacy of the first period, it was defensive frailty that reared its head in the second. Rudiger scored within 57 seconds of the restart, heading in Mason Mount‘s corner to mark his 100th appearance for the club with a goal, but within nine minutes, Leicester were level. Running on to Youri Tielemans‘s pass down the Leicester left, Harvey Barnes was always going to cut inside onto his right foot, but James allowed him to do so and then compounded the error by inadvertently getting a touch on the winger’s shot that sent the ball looping over Chelsea goalkeeper Willy Caballero.
The choice of Caballero in goal in place of the under-performing Kepa Arrizabalaga was Lampard’s biggest call of the afternoon and it was not an unqualified success. The Argentine veteran, rewarded for a sturdy display in the FA Cup at Hull, produced an alert save to thwart Jamie Vardy in the first half and could not be held accountable for Leicester’s first goal, but he was found wanting when Ben Chilwell put the hosts in front in the 64th minute.
Caballero initially seemed determined to claim Chilwell’s floated cross from the left, only to abandon his pursuit of the ball when it drifted beyond the left-hand perimeter of his penalty arena. With the Chelsea keeper scampering back across goal, Tielemans crossed for Chilwell to sweep home at the back post.
Rudiger’s second goal, a thumping header from another Mount set piece, drew Chelsea level, but it was Leicester who came closest to winning the game, with Barnes squandering a gilt-edged chance from Vardy’s pass and Rudiger surviving a stoppage-time penalty appeal for handball. Just as in August’s reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge, which ended in a 1-1 draw, Lampard was the more relieved manager at the final whistle.
Citing Chelsea’s failure to bring in any new players last month, Lampard has described his team as the “underdogs” in the race for a Champions League place. A return of one win from the last five league games has left them vulnerable to attack from the teams immediately below them and they now face a pivotal run of fixtures, with successive home games against top-four qualification rivals Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur followed by the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie against Bayern Munich.
Before that comes the Premier League’s first midseason break, which will keep Chelsea out of action until Feb. 17. As well as giving Abraham time to build his fitness and Arrizabalaga space to rediscover confidence, the two-week break will afford Lampard time to plot his approach to the season’s pivotal final three months. Because having been unable to bolster their squad in the transfer window, his coaching is now all that Chelsea have.