Carlo Ancelotti always knew that he would miss Frank Lampard should the midfielder ever fall prey to injury. Just how much, however, has been demonstrated in the past three months, during which time Chelsea's title defence has deteriorated rapidly in the absence of the goals, and influence, of their midfield playmaker. Little wonder the Chelsea manager is so happy Lampard is back in the starting XI for tonight's crucial visit to Arsenal.
While John Terry marshals the defence, it is Lampard who bears the burden of carrying the attack. Others can provide energy and defensive steel; but Lampard has proved irreplaceable in terms of goals and attacking input. He scored 22 goals last season, and in the previous five seasons counting back he had managed 20, 20, 21, 20 and 19. Lampard's consistent excellence has been one of the cornerstones of Chelsea's success over the past six seasons.
"It's very difficult to find this kind of player who has the capability of scoring 20 goals," Ancelotti said. "He has character, ability, he always runs and works hard, not speaking. He's so professional. It's the best image for a player. I don't like players who speak but don't run. I like players who don't speak but run. They do their talking on the pitch."
During the recent spell when Lampard has been out, that goalscoring hole has simply not been filled by the club's other midfielders. Michael Essien has managed four, Yuri Zhirkov one, but neither John Obi Mikel nor the £17m Brazilian Ramires could muster a goal between them while Lampard has been recuperating.
He returns to a Chelsea team without a win in five Premier League games and in danger of slipping further behind the leaders Manchester United. Ancelotti is phlegmatic over Chelsea's loss of the lead, saying it was inevitable at some time, but claimed the champions are still in the chase.
"In football it is difficult to replace, or maintain, first place. It's easier to arrive first," he said. "It's very difficult to maintain it. It's harder to stay at the top of the table, the top level. It's the same for the club and the team. Obviously, it's harder now to win the title and stay at the top level. But that's a fantastic motivation for us."
While Ancelotti is hoping his side can rediscover their winning state of mind, his counterpart, Arsène Wenger, acknowledges that confidence is something his team has not yet experienced. The Arsenal manager recognises that his side, which has been in development over recent years, has yet to acquire the mentality that comes with winning trophies.
"I believe that my players are quite solid mentally," Wenger said, "but they have not won yet and that is a mental hurdle everyone in life has to get over. One day you want to win and you show that you can win and for that you need to be tough and that makes you even stronger. But you need to believe."
Solving this, Wenger suggested, may need a victory over one of their main title rivals. Arsenal have recorded just three wins in their last 14 league matches against Chelsea and Manchester United, the two sides who have shared the last six Premier League titles.
Their most recent such defeat was a 1-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford earlier this month. Wenger admitted that his team played that match "with a little bit of restriction", owing to the fact that his team "are so keen to prove everybody wrong that it creates a little bit of a handbrake feeling in the team".
Against Chelsea, Arsenal's record stands at two wins from 13, and Wenger predicts that should they finally overcome Ancelotti's side it could be the psychological turning point that they are waiting for.
"We need a big win, yes. Of course," said Wenger. "Chelsea can be an opportunity. [A win] is certainly something that will speed up the maturing of the team."
The Spaniard Cesc Fabregas is in line for his first league start since the loss to Tottenham Hotspur on 20 November. Wenger suggested that Fabregas's injury problem was as much mental as physical.
"When he comes on his hamstring is in his head. So we have to move the hamstring out of his head. That comes with practising every day. Physically, I think he is ready."Reuse content