Lampard drops anchor in Tinkerman's sea of change

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The Independent Online

Frank Lampard will go into Chelsea's match against Newcastle United tomorrow aiming to preserve a remarkable record. In the age of the rotation system at the new Galacticos of Europe, he has been a constant star in the firmament. Lampard has started every League game - the only outfield player to do so.

"It is unusual for me because you think I am the Tinkerman," said his manager, Claudio Ranieri, yesterday when reminded of the statistic. "But I'm also a pragmatist."

The pragmatist has embraced the special qualities of drive and energy that Lampard brings to his team. "Frank understands very well what I want and that is very important," Ranieri said. "The other players are important too but at this moment I count a lot on him."

It is an astonishing statement in light of the squad, the depth of experience and £111m worth of talent that the Italian has recently assembled.

All the more remarkable for the fact that 25-year-old Lampard is the one player in Ranieri's first-choice XI whose ever-presence is genuinely a surprise. The midfield at this stage was supposed to read (right to left) Géremi, Veron, Makelele, Duff. Now Lampard has, so far, outlasted all of them when he was expected to be fighting for the scraps with Joe Cole and others.

"I'm pleased," said Lampard, who has transformed his game, and physique, under Ranieri. He has, literally and figuratively, grown to achieve a level of maturity and consistency. "I feel very fit, very confident and I'm playing regularly. That's all I can ask for.

"At the start of the season everyone was saying we were going to chop and change and so on and I wanted to be one of the ones who stayed in there and so far I've done that. I think it gives that little bit of stability and strength through the team if you have got that.

"People make a lot of being left out. But in this team a lot of big players will miss games and sometimes they will be important games. It's something you have to make sure that you keep your attitude right and then when you do come on you do make a difference. It's important for me to show that I can be left out or rested or whatever but can come back and show that I can help the team."

Although generally unfazed, Lampard admits, however, that he was affected by being omitted from the Champions' League tie against Sparta Prague in September. "He is used to playing all the matches. Maybe this year he will not do that," Ranieri said. Lampard will be rested eventually, his manager said, especially once Emmanuel Petit regains fitness. Perhaps, however, his absences will be fewer than first intended. But Ranieri is also convinced that Lampard is thriving on responsibility.

"I'm looking at how Frank and other players want to improve and that is very important," Ranieri said. "I look for the man and then after that the player. I can improve the man and Frank wants to improve. And, for me, that is easy. I don't want to be his father, but if the man is the right man you can improve the player."

And that will also benefit England, he said. Indeed with Paul Scholes injured, Lampard can expect to continue his run in the friendly next week against Denmark - a burst that was spurred by an eye-catching performance and goal against Croatia. "It is good also for the national team when he is playing in the Champions' League and at this level," Ranieri said.

Indeed Lampard can trace the transformation in his game, and perspective, to his exclusion from last year's World Cup. Being left out made him realise that his career had not taken the leap he had expected after his £11m move from West Ham United. He has reacted - substituting a lack of pace for a dynamism, a desire.

"I don't know him a lot but he wants to get better," said Ranieri. "He tells me he wants to do this and this. Never does he want to come inside [from the training ground]. And that stimulates also his team-mates.

"After [Gus] Poyet, a great player, I wanted another attacking midfielder who can score. But I want to improve how he defends also because in Europe it is important because you are playing against the best players."

Lampard did both - score and defend - in the home and away ties against Lazio in the Champions' League, victories which confirmed Chelsea as a real force and showed that he was not out of place.

"He is already a fantastic midfield player but he can improve upon it with a little more experience," Ranieri said. That will come from playing matches - something Lampard has done more of so far this season than many expected.

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