Football: Lampard ready for England baptism

Alex Hayes says West Ham's all-action man is coming of age
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KEVIN KEEGAN has made it an open secret that he believes Joe Cole will one day take over the "creative midfielder role" which Paul Gascoigne once filled for his country. Quite when the Messiah's prophecy will come true is open to question, though, as the 17-year-old prodigy has made only two starts in his West Ham career to date, but Keegan could do worse than turn to another of Harry Redknapp's midfielders.

The manner in which Frank Lampard has started the new campaign is typical of the entire team. At present riding high in the Premiership and making serious inroads into Europe, Upton Park's multi-national players are fast blending into a potent cocktail. And no wonder. With free spirits such as Paolo di Canio and Paulo Wanchope, leading the frontline, and the cultured Rio Ferdinand and Igor Stimac patrolling in defence, the Hammers are becoming one of the most exciting sides to watch.

"It's very important for me that we play the right way," said Redknapp, who took over as manager after Billy Bonds resigned in 1994. "I like watching people with good ability. We went away to Metz [in the final of the Intertoto Cup which served as a Uefa Cup qualifier] and had a go at the game. We played the same way and I won't change that."

Not that the east London side just pour forward at will. Much of their play is controlled and precise, and they work hard as a unit to track back and defend Shaka Hislop's goal. When they are in possession, however, Lampard is the player through whom all attacks are built. Sitting just in front of the backline, he is usually the first link between defence and attack. His greatest strength is not so much that he can deliver a 50-yard crossfield pass on a 50-pence piece, but more that he does the simple things well. Rarely does the England Under-21 captain give the ball away or get caught in possession. Instead, it is his incisive passing which often catches defenders out.

Another aspect of Lampard's game which sometimes goes unnoticed is his ability to score goals. On Thursday, as West Ham defeated the Croatian Cup winners Osijek by a comfortable three-goal margin in the first round proper of the Uefa Cup, their No 18 demonstrated the full range of his talents.

First, he kept the Hammers ticking over during the tight opening 30 minutes, ensuring that the team did not lose their momentum as they repeatedly tried to break down the packed Osijek defence. Then, as the game opened up in the second half, Lampard started to venture forward with increasing regularity. His running from deep not only creates space for the front two, it also offers his team-mates another attacking option.

Having already scored against Heerenveen and Jokerit in the Intertoto Cup, Lampard's 57th-minute right-foot drive took his tally to three, making him the club's top goalscorer in Europe this season. But his eye for goal is not just restricted to the claret and blue of West Ham, as his seven strikes for the Under-21s testify. If Keegan is looking for a player in the David Platt mould, who can score from midfield, he need look no further than the in-form Lampard.

"When I come into work I think to myself that it's a good group we've got together," said Redknapp after Thursday's game. Another strong showing against Everton at Goodison Park today and in the second leg of the Osijek tie in Croatia in 10 days' time would go a long way towards persuading Keegan that one particular member of that group should be given his chance in next month's friendly with Belgium.