Lampard's England ambitions driven by World Cup omission

Midfielder eager to carry improved Chelsea form on to international stage for Euro 2004 qualifier in Macedonia
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The Independent Football

First a new Argentinian team-mate, then a Frenchman, plus the odd Cameroonian and an Irishman. Chelsea's blizzard of big-money buys has left Frank Lampard's importance to the side blissfully unaffected, yet the former West Ham United midfielder finds himself in the unusual position of having to link up with the England squad to find a spot of stability.

Lampard, who has been pencilled in by Sven Goran Eriksson as a replacement for the injured Paul Scholes in England's vital Euro 2004 qualifier in Macedonia on Saturday, admitted yesterday that Roman Abramovich's spending spree at Stamford Bridge had initially stirred feelings of insecurity that led him to seek assurances from the manager, Claudio Ranieri.

"I spoke to the manager in pre-season when we were being linked with every top-class midfielder in the world," said the 25-year-old Lampard, himself a £10m recruit two years ago.

"I asked him what the situation was and he told me he'd be buying players because we were weak in terms of depth in that area. But he said he still wanted me to be a big part of his squad and I was happy with that.

"I won't lie and say it does not affect you when you see more and more midfielders being signed. You try to look at it in a positive way and think: 'I'd like to play alongside him and hopefully I can learn from him', but what you have to be most concerned about is your own game. I believe that if I'm on top of it, I will be in the side. Playing week-in, week-out is a feat in itself right now and gives you a sense of self belief."

Far from being marginalised by the arrival of Juan Sebastian Veron, Claude Makelele, Géremi, Damien Duff et al, Lampard appears to have become Ranieri's rock in a sea of change.

"I'd like to think that I'm a central figure at the moment, though the competition for places we now have at the club means that could change if I don't perform for a week or two.

"The challenge is healthy; it keeps everyone on their toes. I certainly feel that I've pushed on a little because of the pressure of having high-quality midfield players breathing down my neck.

"I feel I'm now driving the team forward and taking games by the scruff of the neck. I want to keep up the standard I've set for as long as I can."

In truth, Lampard's all-round game was already beginning to mature before the influx of exotic newcomers to west London. He dates the transformation back to his omission from Eriksson's World Cup squad last summer. Having broken into the international set-up four years ago during the Kevin Keegan era, making his debut against Belgium in a friendly at Sunderland, he failed to make the cut for the Far East.

"When I didn't go to the finals, I took it upon myself to take more responsibility in games," he said. "I needed to become a pivotal figure in the team rather than someone that does well but doesn't control the game. I felt that I did that for Chelsea last season."

His father, Frank snr, who also played for England during his career as a full-back with West Ham, has been a constant source of advice and inspiration. Ranieri, too, identified areas on which Lampard needed to work. "The manager has been brilliant, making me aware of certain aspects that maybe I was naive about before I joined Chelsea.

"My defensive game, for instance, has come on a lot. When I was with West Ham I probably ran forward too much. I benefited from scoring more or less double figures every season, but a complete midfield player has to have more to his game."

Importantly for England, Lampard has shown signs of translating his increased effectiveness from the club stage to the international arena.

The first indication of his burgeoning confidence and authority came during a friendly against South Africa in Durban last spring. Despite appearing for only the final 33 minutes, he made a striking impact.

"I remember sitting on the bench before the start and, though I wasn't exactly frustrated, I was thinking that I'd been substitute for England a lot of times. The way people spoke to me afterwards, I knew I had performed better than ever before."

Lampard carried his form over into last month's match with Croatia at Ipswich, firing his first goal in 12 appearances for England from 25 yards after the best move of the match. "I was pleased because I'd had one wrongly disallowed for offside against Slovakia," he said. "Everyone talks about goals. They thrust you into the limelight."

Now England's injury problems have done likewise, opening the way for Lampard to prove that being part of his club's fast-evolving league of nations is no barrier to putting down roots with his country.

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