Lampard likes to shine as central force

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The Independent Online

It is Frank Lampard's 26th birthday today, and all he wants is a victory over Croatia in the final Group B match tomorrow. Do not think of giving him a diamond. Nor will he welcome large chunks of cake. The days when opposing supporters enjoyed a taunt of "Big Fat Frank" are long gone, and the slimmed- down version has vied all season with Steven Gerrard as the best English midfielder in the Premiership.

It is Frank Lampard's 26th birthday today, and all he wants is a victory over Croatia in the final Group B match tomorrow. Do not think of giving him a diamond. Nor will he welcome large chunks of cake. The days when opposing supporters enjoyed a taunt of "Big Fat Frank" are long gone, and the slimmed- down version has vied all season with Steven Gerrard as the best English midfielder in the Premiership.

In two months' time they might even be linking up together for Chelsea, a possibility that clearly appeals to Lampard, who instead of deflecting a question about that prospect yesterday gushed: "Steven Gerrard's a fantastic player. Chelsea are in for a lot of fantastic players, so there's another one we're in for, and any player that would strengthen our team and our squad is going to be welcome. It's almost a dream to play with him because he's got a bit of everything."

In the meantime they are together at the heart of the England team and enjoying that too while learning how to bring the best out of each other as two essentially attacking players. "The fact that we're similar is probably one of the benefits of it," Lampard said. "We can both attack and we can both defend. If one goes, one stays. It's just instinct really, we recognise the situation. The main thing is to find the right time to do it. It's something that comes with time and I think we've done it pretty well. As the tournament goes on and we stay in it hopefully we'll get even better and cause problems. We've worked on it in training day in, day out, and the manager and Steve McClaren have stopped us at times and pointed out things."

He is more reticent on the vexed subject of a midfield diamond formation, which required him when it was last employed, unsuccessfully in the recent friendly against Japan, to be a more disciplined holding player in what was previously the Nicky Butt role. That clearly does not play to Lampard's strengths, and it is reasonable to infer that he would have been with the more senior figures of Gerrard and David Beckham in pressing McClaren (who did not need much persuading) and Sven Goran Eriksson to leave things as they were after the opening tournament match, against France.

"I enjoy playing in pretty much any position, though obviously my favourite is in the middle," Lampard said. "The way we've been playing for two games I've enjoyed playing. So much has been made of it, it almost becomes boring. We've tried both systems and everyone's got an opinion on what's better. At the end of the day the manager picks the team, and if he goes back to the diamond we'll make it happen. You can talk about diamonds and flat fours as much as you like but it's all about players. If the players perform, you win games."

On the other hand, it might be said, England have lost one match playing well, albeit defensively, and won another playing less well. Confusing, but suggesting it is time the team clicked? "Yeah, if we're going to win a tournament we have to click and there have been times when we have. There are also times when we've had to dig in and we've done that. We did it for a big period of the France game."

With a minute of normal time left in that epic, Lampard even admitted his thoughts were beginning to turn to the sort of headlines that awaited the scorer of the goal that beat the reigning European champions: "It was sort of at the back of my mind. We were slightly under the cosh and every time they stuck a ball in I was hoping Sol would come and head it again. I suffered the disappointment more afterwards, but the Switzerland result redressed it a little bit."

Young Frank he once was, in deference to his father, the bearded buccaneer who has long since had to stop boasting of having more caps than his son (he won two). Now he is Frank in his own right, and frank when the occasion demands. Apart from an unexpectedly bad result, only one thing can spoil his birthday weekend: another yellow card tomorrow, ruling him out of any quarter-final.

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