BEHIND this most peculiar season at Chelsea has been a refreshing sense of youthful frivolity.
A feeling that this year does not really matter because the squad, as manager Frank Lampard puts it himself, is in transition.
While this traditionally ruthless club will never be football’s fun factory — and Lampard will demand every team he puts out must compete to the max — rolling out a new wave of emerging players has taken the pressure off the cynical pursuit of success.
The fans have bought into it big time and so have Chelsea’s senior players, such as Mateo Kovacic when he told the youngsters to go out and ‘enjoy’ the ‘beautiful’ Champions League.
By and large so have those fresh-faced boys in whom Lampard places faith every time they play — until last night.
Mason Mount and Reece James took to the stage together in the biggest game of their lives, but were singing off vastly different hymn sheets by the final whistle.
Lampard named an unchanged team from that which beat Tottenham on Saturday.
But there was a marked difference between his players in terms of their body language.
This time last year Mount was sitting out an injury during Derby’s failed attempt to win promotion from the Championship.
There was no way this hungry young imp of a midfielder was going to let the occasion pass him by, irrespective of the steadily downhill path the evening took.
Mount, who would be ID’d in any pub around Stamford Bridge, was thrown in against Thomas Muller, a
genuine titan of world football and the closest thing Bayern Munich have to Chelsea’s former midfield general Lampard in their ranks.
But in the first half particularly, before the effort of trying to keep up with the Germans took its toll, Mount scampered his way across every blade of grass, skipped down the channels and even dared to shoot in the 34th minute, coming within a whisker of putting his team ahead.
Nicknamed ‘The Beast’ by his Chelsea pals, James was made to look more like a tranquilized rhino.
Even with Munich 2-0 up with half an hour to go, Lampard gave a nod to his blossoming star by leaving him on and taking off the more experienced Ross Barkley.
He made Mount the main support act for striker Tammy Abraham, despite Chelsea facing the mountainous task of clawing their way back into a game that threatened to run away from them.
Mount will be hopeful of securing a place in the England squad for this summer’s Euro 2020 finals — as will his big mate James.
Nicknamed ‘The Beast’ by his pal for that impressive physique, uncompromising tackling, precision crossing and sheer will-to-win, Chelsea’s talented defender was more like a tranquilized rhino.
It is such a shame that one of Chelsea’s brightest and youngest prospects, even by this squad’s boyish standards, was unable to showcase his full range of talents.
And more than anything, he did not look like he was having much fun out there.
Lampard makes a lot of James’ attributes, that he can play anywhere on the right, or even in central midfield if asked.
The lad can certainly cross a ball and shoot, but we saw little of that last night.
The wing-back role given to James was the wrong one because he was unable to display any of his main attributes.
The fact all three Bayern goals, and the vast majority of their many chances at goal, came from down Chelsea’s right merely puts the statistical tin hat on a bad night which hopefully will not dent the boy’s confidence for too long.
We have all had a bad day at the office but not many of us have had to spend it battling to keep Serge Gnabry, Munich’s arch-sniper, under control.
The former Arsenal winger has now scored six goals on his last two visits to London.
Putting a 20-year-old rookie up against that kind of form is a big ask indeed.
At set-pieces, James was defending against Benjamin Pavard, the French full-back who won the World Cup’s goal of the tournament with his spectacular volley against Argentina in 2018.
When it came to the simple matter of defending last night, James was not so bad. He was unflinching and robust. But stuck out wide as a right wing-back he was too preoccupied with Gnabry’s potent danger.
And that meant there was none of the marauding along the touchline that has caused so many problems for the opposition in the Premier League this season.
Whether that is James’ fault for playing in a shell or Lampard’s for his tactics is up for debate.
But ultimately it was Chelsea who lost out and they now face a near Mission Impossible to make the Champions League last eight.