Lampard drives on through the gloom

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At Villa Park on Tuesday night it came from the Holte End, a chant that raised itself every time Frank Lampard went to take a corner or found himself within sight of the home support after a Chelsea attack. "Where were you in Germany?" was the mocking question directed at Chelsea's No 8 and temporary captain.

The wounds of England's failure at the World Cup finals still run deep - there are even some English supporters of severely limited imagination who still think that booing Cristiano Ronaldo is witty and insightful. The Lampard World Cup question is a complex web of one nation's sense of resentment and blame around England's summer of shame. He may have to carry the can for the rest of his career. What is surely not in doubt is what the man himself has done since then.

Chelsea have found themselves in trouble of late, with no John Terry to stir them at the back. They are without the invention of Arjen Robben and Joe Cole, and William Gallas and Eidur Gudjohnsen have departed. Even Claude Makelele has looked out of sorts. But they would be much further off Manchester United were it not for the efforts of Lampard, who in the past five Premiership games has done as much as anyone to keep Chelsea afloat.

A strange thing happened to Lampard over the course of last summer, a rejection that is experienced by only a handful of people in British public life. Almost overnight, he went from being a kind of aspirational figure, someone who had made the very best of his talents, to a player it was acceptable to deride. He earned that status by refusing point-blank to show any contrition for his own form at the World Cup. It was not a tactful way to sign off in Germany but then when you saw, for example, the stunt David Beckham pulled at the end of the World Cup to avoid the flack, could you really blame Lampard?

It is not all that has changed for Lampard. For no discernible reason, the Sun newspaper has turned on him lately with an initial salvo of embarrassing allegations about his private life. They are still refusing to give up the pursuit and their latest effort was a nonsensical story accusing Lampard of leaving too many bin bags outside his house. Yet amid all this, and the problems that Chelsea are experiencing, he seems to be developing in Terry's absence.

It was always curious as to how an attacking midfielder such as him would fare in a Chelsea team struggling for form. Against Fulham on Saturday and Villa on Tuesday night, Lampard drove Chelsea on. He missed a late chance in the penalty area, but then only he could have been expected to get there so late in the game. With Salomon Kalou and Shaun Wright-Phillips in abject form the responsibility for Chelsea's entire attacking impetus fell on the shoulders of Lampard and, to a lesser extent, Michael Essien.

He has been shunted around in midfield to accommodate Michael Ballack, suspended against Villa, and still managed to eclipse the German. You suspect that, privately, Lampard is not altogether impressed by the haughty swagger of Ballack, who has done nothing to galvanise Chelsea in moments of crisis. After the World Cup, Lampard was mocked while Ballack was rightly lauded as the leader of an over-achieving Germany team. Now no one would argue that Ballack has had an equally profound effect on the Premiership this season.

Ballack is a Mourinho-driven purchase in the way that Andrei Shevchenko, Salomon Kalou and Wright-Phillips were not and is therefore insulated from the kind of criticism the manager has directed at the three others. Chelsea sold some good players in the summer. The root of their problems is that Ballack and Shevchenko's influence has not matched the qualities that departed with the likes of Gallas and Gudjohnsen.

Lampard spoke after the Villa game about his team's attitude to dropping six points in three games - "certainly not a crisis" was how he described it. "I am confident we can pull the gap back, there are many points to play for and we've got a lot of confidence in this team," he said.

"That's the reason we've been champions two years on the trot. It is important we carry on doing the right things. Slight things haven't gone our way, you can't dwell on that. You just have to wait for it to turn a little bit and I am sure it will. Petr Cech coming back is a big bonus, especially with the sort of injury he had. People get carried away because of the standards we have set for the past two seasons. It is quite normal to have periods in a season where it doesn't quite go for you."

Lampard is one of only three, with Didier Drogba and Essien, to come out of the situation with credit and it seems he will have to adjust to a new reality. One in which he is no longer the poster boy of English football, who got booed only by West Ham fans but someone who will have to confront, possibly for the rest of his career, the disappointments of that German summer of 2006. It has taken the current mess at Chelsea to show he is made of tougher stuff.