Lampard out for a month as Chelsea hit the limit

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The Independent Online

Another day, another key player out. Frank Lampard's torn thigh muscle against Aston Villa on Wednesday means that the midfielder is out for a month and represents another major blow to Chelsea's fading Premier League challenge. The 29-year-old is just the latest in a series of key players to be ruled out by injury or suspension.

Chelsea said yesterday that Lampard's injury suffered as he challenged John Carew in the 4-4 draw with Villa was not in the same leg as a similar injury earlier in the season. Then Lampard was out for a month missing seven games including Jose Mourinho's last in charge against Rosenborg in the Champions League and now Chelsea are without him, John Terry, Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and the suspended Ricardo Carvalho.

Terry's original recovery time of six weeks for the three bones he broke in his right foot against Arsenal on 16 December has not changed according to the club and he will not be rushed back. Drogba is set to join up with the Ivory Coast for the African Nations Cup early next month as is Salomon Kalou, while Michael Essien will be with Ghana and John Obi Mikel with Nigeria. Malouda is still yet to regain fitness and Carvalho is banned for three matches.

Combined with that, the hitherto indestructible Lampard is a huge loss to manager Avram Grant, who is now without his captain and vice-captain. It was symbolic of how Chelsea rely on that pair that when Lampard went off on Wednesday there was confusion as to who should take the armband. He picked out Carvalho rather than give the armband to his replacement Michael Ballack but Carvalho passed it on to Joe Cole.

Chelsea have appealed against Ashley Cole's red card for what referee Phil Dowd saw as a handball against Villa, although that cause seems doomed to failure. So too Villa's appeal against Zat Knight's dismissal. With Ashley Cole also suspended and no obvious replacement as captain without Terry and Lampard, Grant will have to turn to two players who have made only a marginal impact on the first team since the new manager took over in September.

Andrei Shevchenko, who scored twice against Villa, may yet lose his starting place should Chelsea's deal for Nicolas Anelka go through but Ballack is virtually assured of a spot with all the injuries and absentees in the Chelsea squad. The Germany international rejected the Villa manager Martin O'Neill's allegation that he dived to win the penalty for the foul that caused Knight to be sent off. "For me there is no discussion about this," he said. "I had the ball and two guys, not just one, came and one pushed me. It was a clear penalty."

Ballack is about to take on a much greater significance in the Chelsea squad over the next month than he has enjoyed since he signed in 2006. The Germany captain has always had an uneasy relationship with Lampard but with the Englishman sidelined and Mikel bound for international duty, the spotlight falls on the man who will make his first start tomorrow against Newcastle in more than eight months.

Ironically for Ballack, it will be the same side against which he picked up his ankle injury in April, a Titus Bramble challenge chipping the bone in his left ankle and setting off a train of events that put the midfielder's very future at the club in question. Two controversial operations have gone into Ballack's rehabilitation but he said this week that he and Shevchenko still had a lot more to offer Chelsea.

"We always want to play even if he [Shevchenko] couldn't show it every time in the last two seasons," Ballack said. "We are self-critical and we can play better but you need to get a good feeling for the [way the] team [plays] not just yourself. You need to get used to everybody in the team, how it works."

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