Lampard remains a key player, says Villas-Boas

Chelsea manager defends his 'tactical' withdrawal of veteran midfielder but fields youngsters in Carling Cup

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The Independent Football

The humour at football clubs can be barbed but, said Andre Villas-Boas yesterday, there were no gags about open goals made at the expense of Fernando Torres in training at Cobham. "There's nothing to joke about," he said sternly. "We don't joke about negative results against a Premier League contender."

Nor, it can be assumed, were ageist quips being made to Frank Lampard. So startling was Torres' Old Trafford miss the humiliation suffered by Lampard in being substituted at half-time largely slipped under the radar. Yet, coupled with similar treatment at international level, it further added to a sense that a very good career may be drawing to a close.

Lampard has scored 163 goals for club and country, at an average just over one every three and a half games. No midfielder has ever scored more for Chelsea, but, this season, he has scored once in eight matches, and that from the penalty spot against Norwich City. At 33, with injuries more common, Lampard may be facing the one opponent no footballer can beat, Father Time.

Not so, said Villas-Boas. Asked if Lampard could adapt his game, he said: "Of course he could, but I do not like where the question is going. It suggests he has a problem with age and is slowing. That is not so. He still plays with intensity. The decision [to take him off] was purely tactical. I felt we needed to change formation and bring in a No 10 [the second-striker role]. I felt [Juan] Mata in that position could offer us something." That, he indicated, meant playing 4-2-1-3 with two holding midfielders, which left no room for Lampard.

"The substitution was not because Lamps was playing badly, he wasn't. He had an important impact, he had a couple of interceptions, a couple of shots. His display was good. We had to adapt to a more attacking style – not that he doesn't have an attacking style.

"Players of this stature don't have to prove anything to anybody. He is a fantastic player. He will be a key player for the rest of the season." Villas-Boas said he and Lampard had spoken at the time and added: "His reaction in training was perfect. He was very professional."

Lampard has a habit of confounding his critics and it would be unwise to write him off. Last season, hampered by injury, he scored also one goal in his first eight matches, which is all he played before the new year. He ended the season with 15 goals from 36 Chelsea and England appearances. Nevertheless the feeling that Villas-Boas is changing the guard will be present again tonight when he fields a youthful side in the Carling Cup at home to Fulham. "This is an opportunity for us to give our best young talents experience," he said. "It is important for them to get the feeling of competition. Arsenal have been doing this for years and I think it has been useful for the talent. We have a responsibility to try and win the trophy as well and we have enough good players to try to do that."

The approach, Villas-Boas, admitted, was dictated by Roman Abramovich. "The owner wants to promote talent," he said.

Chelsea have not produced a player of their own since John Terry came through but there are high hopes for Josh McEachran and Ryan Bertrand, who will play tonight. New signings Oriol Romeo and Romelu Lukaku should also start. It will not all be youngsters. Didier Drogba will make his return from suffering concussion against Norwich last month. "It is important for him to have some time in the game," said Villas-Boas.