Assured display may put Lampard in England frame

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The Independent Football

Frank Lampard has been, by common consent, the best midfielder, English or foreign, in the Premiership this season. The Arsenal squad, barred from backing team-mates, voted en masse for him in the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year award. They were not alone, Lampard polled second to Thierry Henry.

Frank Lampard has been, by common consent, the best midfielder, English or foreign, in the Premiership this season. The Arsenal squad, barred from backing team-mates, voted en masse for him in the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year award. They were not alone, Lampard polled second to Thierry Henry.

The 25-year-old has played 55 matches for Chelsea this season, way more than anyone else at Stamford Bridge. The only match he missed was the Carling Cup third-round victory over Notts County and even then he was on the bench, just in case he was required, as he was on the only other two occasions he began as a substitute, at Sparta Prague and Watford.

And yet Lampard, as things stand, will not be lining up for England against France in Lisbon on 11 June. Sven Goran Eriksson's planned midfield quartet is David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Stephen Gerrard.

Tonight, with Chelsea seeking to overturn Monaco's 3-1 Champions' League semi-final first-leg lead, represents the best chance Lampard has of convincing Eriksson that he deserves a place in the starting XI for the European Championships.

With Monaco expected to defend in depth Lampard's ability to score goals from deep could be vital. "He is my champion," said Claudio Ranieri yesterday.

"There won't be much space for our forwards so the midfield will be important," added the Chelsea manager. "I don't want to put pressure on Frank, but I will not be surprised if he scores against Monaco."

Is he surprised Lampard does not start for England? "Every manager has his own ideas about football," said Ranieri. "For each manager it is important to link his team his way. In my way, Frank is 'the man'."

Ranieri and Lampard have been good for each other. The Italian signed the young Englishman for £11m in the summer of 2001. At the time it seemed a high fee. Lampard was a decent player, a regular scorer from midfield, but was yet to suggest that he could live with the best.

But Lampard has made a habit of proving people wrong. At West Ham, supporters thought he was the beneficiary of nepotism, Lampard's father, Frank Snr, was assistant to the manager, Harry Redknapp, Frank Jnr's uncle. He shrugged off the criticism, making 187 appearances for the Hammers before his 22nd birthday. He left in the wake of the enforced departures of Redknapp and his father. Arriving at Chelsea he thanked Ken Bates for bringing him "to a proper club".

Lampard also went through a period when he was known as "Fat Frank", not that anyone would imagine it now as he ploughs up and down the pitch. Though he will never have electric speed - a problem for Eriksson whose midfield is short of pace - he has impressive stamina and gets box-to-box as quickly as most.

The change is partly down to Ranieri, his fitness coaches and dieticians, and partly down to Lampard maturing. As anyone who met him when he captained England Under-21s will have noticed, Lampard is a bright lad. At school (Brentwood) he got 11 GCSEs at C grade or above including Latin at A-star.

That did not stop him getting into bad habits and bad company. Notoriously, he was involved in a holiday video, along with Kieron Dyer and Rio Ferdinand, after the trio were omitted from the Euro 2000 squad. He then figured among four Chelsea players reprimanded for being drunk and obnoxious at a Heathrow hotel frequented by Americans the day after the September 11 tragedy.

Looking back he reflected: "I was naïve and silly. I let myself down badly but I have learned from my mistake. I will never be involved in something like that again." He has kept his word.

Lampard quickly became a fixture in the Chelsea midfield but failed to convince Eriksson he was more than a fringe international and missed out on the 2002 World Cup. He persevered, became a regular squad member and, in June, finally started, and finished, his first competitive match, against Slovakia.

Then Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea bringing, in his wake, Claude Makelele, Juan Sebastian Veron and Geremi. With Emmanuel Petit also competing for a central midfield berth Lampard was concerned.

"I was a bit worried," he recalled. "I thought: 'Am I going to play'," His doubts seemed justified when, in Chelsea's first major match with all the new recruits available, Sparta Prague away in the Champions' League, Lampard was on the bench. The other four all played. Lampard, however, came on at the interval and helped Chelsea win the tie. He has continued to respond the right way. "I have had to kick on to another level because of the pressure of new players," he said.

The goals have helped, 14 so far including two on Saturday against Southampton. For that he has his father to thank. Lampard Snr had been a left-back, spending his entire career at West Ham. Early on he said to his son: "Don't be a left-back son, play somewhere where you score goals. Goalscorers get noticed." Lampard Snr had played for England himself but his eight-year career featured just two caps, in 1972 and 1980.

When Kevin Keegan criticised Lampard Jnr after giving him his England debut in October 1999 he must have feared his international career would go the same way. Keegan did not select him for another squad and it was not until Eriksson capped Lampard in February 2001 he knew he would not be a one-cap wonder.

This week Lampard Snr paid his son a rare compliment when he compared him to Bobby Moore, a former team-mate. "Bobby knew how to meet the challenge of big circumstances and take command of them. I'm proud to say I can see a similar quality in Frank," said his father. Significantly, you did not have to be a relative to agree.

THE TINKERMAN'S OPTIONS HOW RANIERI MAY TRY TO INSPIRE CHELSEA'S FIGHTBACK

Ranieri may try to steamroller Monaco's defence by playing three strikers. Huth would be in simply for his strength at free-kicks. Veron would be a risk, so Gronkjaer may get the nod, and defensive duties would fall on Lampard. However, a side designed to score would probably also concede.

One unlikely option is to try to strangle the game - and slowly pick up the two goals required. A gamble dependent on taking the few chances created. If he opts for this line-up, a big burden falls on the in-form Gudjohnsen with Cole, in particular, expected to provide support from the packed midfield.

Packing the midfield would be defensively dangerous. Experimented with three at the back against Besiktas at home in the Champions' League and the gamble backfired spectacularly. However, such a tactic would enable Ranieri to accommodate his midfielders and could stifle Monaco's wide men.

Giving Veron the playmaker's role, the role he was supposed to inherit, would be a high-risk strategy as it would hand the fulcrum of the team to a hugely disappointing player. Width would come from the full-backs pushing forward with a narrow midfield three. Cole or Mutu could come off the bench if Veron fades.

By Jason Burt

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