LONDON • Chelsea travel to Brighton today for the sort of fixture in which they cannot afford to slip up, if they are to keep pace with the standards set by Liverpool and Manchester City in recent English Premier League seasons.
The bar has been raised far higher this season as the London club have gone against the economic gloom in most of European football with a £200 million (S$350 million) spending spree.
The Blues finished fourth, 33 points behind Liverpool last season, but manager Frank Lampard did achieve the primary objective of his first campaign in charge by guiding them back into the Champions League despite a one-window transfer ban and losing Eden Hazard to Real Madrid.
The club great has been rewarded with some of the most exciting attacking talent in Europe with the signings of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech.
A defence that conceded 54 top-flight goals last season has also been overhauled with the arrivals of England left-back Ben Chilwell and former Brazil captain Thiago Silva. Edouard Mendy is also expected to join from Rennes to solve a problem position in goal.
Lampard is aware that with greater resources also comes much greater scrutiny, even though Ziyech, Chilwell and Silva will miss the Amex Stadium clash through a combination of injury and lack of match fitness.
As a Chelsea player, he has seen a host of managers ruthlessly sacked for not meeting Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's exacting standards. After accusations he was losing interest in the club, the owner has loosened the purse strings to an extent not seen since he took English football by storm in 2003, and will expect a return on his investment.
"My expectations are on a different level from last year because of the different situation," said Lampard. "I didn't come here to finish fourth place."
After investing so much in the squad, questions remain whether the ex-England midfielder, in just his third season as a manager, is the right man to take a title fight to two of the world's best managers in Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola of Manchester City.
Even his legendary status may not spare him from Abramovich's wrath if the team do not at least join the title race, although Lampard believes he still needs more time.
"We have finished a lot of points behind in the last two seasons so we have to first look at closing the gap and building confidence. I'm not jumping ahead, making predictions of us challenging anyone else," he said. "We should be excited but we should also note a word of caution."
BRIGHTON V CHELSEA
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