Chelsea give fans perfect homecoming with a transformed team on top

And just try telling the 2,000 inside Stamford Bridge that it’s too soon to dream of the title.

Frank Lampard believes they may have to wait until next season to become serious contenders. But a 3-1 win against Leeds was a latest show of strength and character from a team that has been transformed in the nine months since supporters were last allowed inside.

A lot has changed in that time – not least six new additions that have inspired such a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes. All were on show here. Yet it was two of the old guard, Olivier Giroud and Kurt Zouma, who set up the win.

Christian Pulisic struck late on to kill off Leeds’ challenge and send Chelsea to the summit of the table – even if only for a matter of hours before Tottenham and Liverpool are back in action.

The point is, they are now very much part of that company – and victory against a hugely impressive Leeds was even more significant in the context of Manchester City and Manchester United making their moves towards the top earlier in the day.

This was a fresh test for Lampard’s side – going behind early on and rising to the occasion when even a small crowd might have been a cause for nerves.

Those fans present will have left with news of a latest coming from their beloved team, and will pass on the message to those who didn’t make the cut when just a couple of thousand tickets were made available.

This is a team that is finding different ways to win; one with so many options it can switch it up when necessary.

Zouma’s header was an old-fashioned tie-breaker in a very modern, free-flowing, technical game.

( POOL/AFP via Getty Images )

Chelsea’s aerial power from set pieces is just one of the many weapons in their arsenal.

They’d cut Leeds open with sweeping breaks too – failure to capitalise on a host of chances for Giroud and Timo Werner, in particular, simply saw them switch to another tactic.

It is yet another reason to believe they are indeed challengers for now, rather than the future.

Yet Lampard’s message beforehand was that excitement surrounding his team may be premature.

Still Chelsea went into the game knowing victory would send above leaders Spurs and champions Liverpool.

It would be a fitting gift to their returning fans, who produced a noise that far outweighed the sparse number of tickets that were available under Covid-19 restrictions.

But as loud as the home fans were in the opening exchanges, they were silenced when Patrick Bamford fired Leeds ahead after four minutes.

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The only sound inside the Bridge came from the visitors’ bench, and the maroon shirts that ran to celebrate with the goal-scorer after he’d ghosted in behind Zouma to meet Kalvin Phillips’ through-ball and slipped his shot past the advancing Edouard Mendy.

Chelsea should have been level moments later when Werner managed to prevent Giroud from scoring his fifth goal this week.

The Frenchman’s header from Mason Mount’s corner looked goal-bound until Werner intervened and fired against the bar at the second attempt.

While that was calamitous, Lampard’s major concern was the ease with which Leeds cut open a defence that has looked so solid in recent months.

Bamford was elusive – blasting over from close range with another effort – while Ezgjan Alioski hit the post shortly after.

By the time Chelsea equalised on 27 minutes the score could have been 3-3, with both sides creating clear openings.

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He had a similar chance again shortly after – this time when Werner crossed – but couldn’t convert on that occasion.

After the break Havertz headed over from James’ whipped-in free-kick to point to Chelsea’s growing dominance at set pieces– but at the other end Raphinha’s volley was blocked by the legs of Mendy.

Illan Meslier produced a triple save to deny Werner twice and then Mount before Chelsea eventually took the lead from the resulting corner.

Mount’s outswinger found the head of Zouma, who nodded low to beat the Leeds keeper on 61 minutes.

Chelsea had their chances to extend their lead – Werner denied again when one-on-one with Melier and Giroud’s finishing wayward from close range on two occasions.

With Leeds still in it, Pulisic sealed the win in stoppage time after a devastating break involving Mateo Kovacic and Werner.

It couldn’t have been more in contrast to Zouma’s earlier goal – just to emphasise the many sides of a team that is answering every question posed to them right now.

So close to Lampard’s strongest XI

( POOL/AFP via Getty Images )

Chelsea line-up came as little surprise and was so close to what could be considered Lampard’s strongest XI.

The only name missing is Pulisic – who started on the bench – with Giroud leading the line after his stunning performance in midweek.

Lampard could hardly ignore the Frenchman after four goals in the Champions League.

But going forward, you would expect Werner to take up the central position with Pulisic to the left and Ziyech to the right to make up a formidable forward line.

Time will tell if Ziyech’s injury means Lampard will have to wait longer to finally field that XI.

( Getty Images )

It has been too long – and even if it was only a couple of thousand, the sound of fans welcoming Chelsea’s players onto the pitch for their pre-match warm-up was one that has been sorely missed.

It is a taste of what’s to come as more and more are permitted back in across the country.

And Chelsea gave them something to cheer with a win to send them to the top of the table.

This weekend get a £10 free bet with Betfair, when you bet £10 on a Same Game Multi on the Premier League.

Terms: Min £10 Same Game Multi bet on any EPL match this Fri – Sun. Free bet valid for 72 hours, awarded at bet settlement. Excludes cashed out bets. T&Cs apply.

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