Lampard's return leaves Chelsea without an excuse for failure

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The Independent Football

The return to full fitness of Frank Lampard is a timely fillip for Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti but with it comes the realisation that there are no more excuses for his team's slump in performance.

Lampard is to play for the champions tomorrow against Premier League leaders Manchester United, his first start since he had surgery on a hernia in August.

Lampard's brief appearance as a substitute against Tottenham last weekend ended a run of 20 games on the sidelines, the worst injury spell of the 32-year-old's distinguished career. He managed 13 minutes against Spurs, and then 60 of a practice game at Chelsea's training ground on Thursday to complete his comeback.

How Chelsea have missed him. Lampard scored 27 goals last season, and also laid on 18 for his team-mates, meaning he had a hand in 45 of the club's 142 goals. He returns to find Chelsea a pale imitation of the team he left in August, without a win in five Premier League games although there were signs of improvement in the team's second-half display at White Hart Lane on Sunday.

Lampard's comeback follows John Terry's return from injury and Didier Drogba's recovery from malaria, and means Chelsea are pretty much at full strength, all except centre half Alex. The old line about injuries will not wash now if Chelsea do not start winning points again, and quickly. They have picked up just six points from their last seven games, the same run of form as bottom club West Ham.

Ancelotti said a defeat to United would not be a disaster, but it would leave Chelsea potentially nine points behind Sir Alex Ferguson's team, if they win their game in hand against Blackpool. The Italian is optimistic. "I think the difficult moment is finished. There was a different atmosphere in the training ground this week," he said.

"The return of Lampard is very important news for us. Maybe he's the best player able to score from midfield. He will also bring more dynamic movement from midfield and obviously his experience and character to the team.

"We don't need him to be a hero. We just need a player who is capable of scoring 20 goals from midfield. He has maintained his skills and will be very important."

Ancelotti said victory at Stamford Bridge tomorrow over United would "be fantastic for the atmosphere in the squad" but denied that defeat would rule Chelsea out of the title race. "It is too early to say that it could be decisive," he said. "There are five teams fighting for the title, so there will be a lot of important games."

Ancelotti is under immense pressure to oversee a return to winning ways, but he suggested yesterday that results were not the most important way to judge a manager. He claimed England was becoming more like Italy following the sackings of Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce. "I don't think winning is the most important. I know that a lot of managers are judged just on results but not the most important things," he said. "What matters is the philosophy of the team, the club, the atmosphere, a lot of things. Most important is to judge the job, the way he prepares good training sessions. This is how a club should judge a manager."

That has not been the criteria at Chelsea in the past and, with results yet to pick up, it is unlikely that owner Roman Abramovich takes such a broad-minded approach.