Villas-Boas is feeling the heat as Lampard plays waiting game
The moment of truth for Frank Lampard will arrive this afternoon when Andre Villas-Boas reveals his team for Chelsea's Champions League match against Valencia tonight.
If Lampard's name is absent, his future as a serious player at Stamford Bridge would seem to be coming to a close. The mainstay of the Chelsea midfield for the best part of a decade, Lampard has only started one of the club's last four matches and then he was substituted at half-time with Chelsea 3-0 down at Manchester United.
With his England career taking a similar course, Lampard has only played 90 minutes once in seven matches this month, against Sunderland on 10 September. Once a prolific goalscorer from midfield (including 25 goals in Europe) he has managed one this season, a penalty on the opening day against Norwich City.
Villas-Boas is acutely sensitive to questions about Lampard, just as he has been to inquiries about Fernando Torres' form. He knows it is a big call for a new manager to omit such a key figure. Nevertheless, he was especially tetchy yesterday, maybe because a problem with their chartered Boeing 777 meant Chelsea left Gatwick three-and-a half hours late, nearly all of which time was spent on the runway before BA found a replacement plane. For someone as meticulous as Villas-Boas, this would have been very frustrating.
When asked yesterday whether he had to reassure Lampard about his future he responded by asking his inquisitor how many Premier League matches Lampard had played this season. The answer is five, but the the fact he was hooked at half-time in the last start, and left on the bench in the subsequent game, would seem more relevant.
Villas-Boas went on: "So you just took the negative part instead of the positive part. Frank is a magnificent player. An established, top-quality player, one of the most important at the club and will continue to be. He has nothing to prove to anybody in the world. I think and hope he will continue to succeed at this club for the remainder of my years here."
Clear enough, so given he's rested and highly experienced in Europe he will play tomorrow then? Villas-Boas refused to take the easy way out and say "yes", possibly because Lampard might not. Instead he said: "It depends on the strategy we want to play. I make choices like any manager. There is nothing dramatic in that. They are for the benefit of the team. The fact players are out, they are in, it's not about individuals. They are all a part of the team and its success. They all see things in the dressing room as team objectives."
Villas-Boas took great objection to his tactics at Old Trafford being called "naïve" by Alan Hansen last week, but if he really believes players do not put themselves first he is showing a naivety that betrays his lack of a playing career. In the short term some will, but Eamonn Dunphy's book, It's Only A Game, long ago exploded the myth of players putting the team first.
Most footballers are insecure about their place: it is a natural condition of being in such a competitive environment, and ageing players are more insecure than most. It is thus inconceivable that Lampard is not concerned about a new manager's reluctance to give him 90 minutes and the fact that Lampard started the season as a fixture, and has since been dropped will deepen that anxiety, not lessen it.
Thus the anticipation surrounding tonight's team selection. The opening-round defeat of Bayer Leverkusen gives Villas-Boas breathing space but the manager still needs to select a strong team, for this looks the most demanding fixture of a group which also includes Genk. Valencia lost at the weekend, to Seville, but pushed Barcelona hard in a 2-2 draw the previous week. Unai Emery looks to have reinvented the team after the loss of Juan Mata to Chelsea this summer just as he did after David Silva and David Villa departed.
Chelsea's previous visits, both in 2007, were each won 2-1. A third success, with Lampard prominent, should make tonight's flight home much more relaxing.
Three key confrontations: Where tonight's match will be won or lost
Roberto Soldado v John Terry
With David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata all gone, Soldado is Valencia's leading attacking player. The former Real Madrid youngster was signed in summer 2010, and scored 25 goals last season. He has five in four La Liga games already this term, and his agility, movement, and eye for a chance could cause problems for Chelsea's veteran captain John Terry this evening.
Adil Rami v Fernando Torres
Despite an open-goal miss and a red card, Torres is in his best form since joining Chelsea in January. Tonight he will be tracked and chased by Rami, a centre-back whose strength and assurance over the last year has led to Laurent Blanc making him a first-choice for the French national side.
Sergio Canales v Jon Obi Mikel
One of Spanish football's many brilliant youngsters, Canales will drift behind Soldado, in the role in which both David Silva and Juan Mata have previously revelled at the Mestalla. Mikel will have to shackle the gifted 20-year-old, preventing him from causing havoc, while not opening up space for other midfield runners.
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