Swing to the centre for Lampard in popular vote

Player of the year: The rise and rise of Terry's leading rival
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The Independent Online

Rarely does a Chelsea home game seem to take place without an award being made on the pitch to a player of the year/ season/month/fortnight from some out-of-town supporters' group or other. John Terry's house must have required a special extension to hold them all. Now is the time of year for a wider audience, first of fellow professionals and then writers, to consider which individual in English football has made the greatest contribution over the past season, but there are only two realistic contenders, and both have done much of their best work on that self-same pitch.

Rarely does a Chelsea home game seem to take place without an award being made on the pitch to a player of the year/ season/month/fortnight from some out-of-town supporters' group or other. John Terry's house must have required a special extension to hold them all. Now is the time of year for a wider audience, first of fellow professionals and then writers, to consider which individual in English football has made the greatest contribution over the past season, but there are only two realistic contenders, and both have done much of their best work on that self-same pitch.

If Terry, an inspirational leader, holding together a defence that once seemed impregnable, was initially the favourite, Mori might now detect a swing significant enough to have Peter Snow waving his arms about in great excitement; a swing to the centre - of midfield - to be precise. For as that Chelsea back-line has been breached in recent weeks with increasing regularity, so it has become incumbent on those further forward to come up with more goals in compen-sation. None has done so to better effect or in more thrilling manner than Frank Lampard.

It was the artist formerly known as Big Fat Frank, his horizons now far broader than his beam, whose three goals eased his team through the Champions' League quarter-final against Bayern Munich, giving him five in as many games and 15 for the season. Jose Mourinho, who has regularly studied him at closer quarters than anyone, recently described Lampard as his "full-timegalactico" - as distinct from the part-time midfield artists who draw easy praise - for his consistently high level of performance over 50 games this season, showing no signs of flagging with the biggest of them still to come. As an additional recommendation to the nation's scribblers, who are supposed to take sportsmanship and attitude into consideration when choosing the Footballer of the Year, Lampard's demeanour has become a credit to his profession, putting away childish things to become the model professional.

How welcome to hear any modern millionaire hero sounding just like a regular guy, as he did while willingly giving up celebration time in the depths of Munich's Olympic stadium late on Tuesday night: "I'm not a superstar, I consider myself to be down to earth. But we're a team, not of superstars, and I think that is one of our strengths. We have a great spirit and when the going gets tough, like tonight, we all work hard together."

Prodded into further reflection on his personal qualities and achievements so far, he flattered two waning Premiership greats in suggesting: "I don't know that I have surpassed the likes of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane, because they are the best, and they have been the best in the business for a long time.

"Vieira is a fantastic player. Every time you play against him you can see what a complete player he is. Roy Keane has been the best in the world for me, the most complete midfielder I have seen for many, many years. Steven Gerrard as well to a certain extent. And looking back 18 months ago, that is where I wanted to be, among them. I get an extreme amount of pleasure when people say I'm in that bracket now."

Like everyone at Chelsea, he is happy to offer much of the credit for his improvement as a player - if not a person - to Mourinho, who began imposing new standards from his first pre-season training session last summer. "He's a man who seen it all and is very knowledgeable. He's worked with me every day and helped my game and seen me develop. I know Jose said I was the most complete midfielder in the world, but he's my manager and people will say he's slightly biased. But it gives you immense confidence, especially when you're playing against sides with some of the best individuals in the world.

"Training is fantastic under him and you learn things every day. I would say he gave me confidence the minute he walked through the door. He made me feel I was one of the most important players in the team, the core of the team. He did the same with John Terry, and when he does that he drives you on to improve."

So high, understandably, is confidence among the squad that even the more modest members of the dressing room are now taking the Premiership as won. The Champions' League is something else, especially for those like Lampard who went from the heights of victory at Highbury this time last year to the misery of the semi-final collapse against Monaco.

"Last season in the Champions' League hurt us a lot," he said. "To have been in the final at half-time at Stamford Bridge and see it all disappear in 45 minutes of football was cruel. It hurt, it hurt a lot. Now we have more resilience, more strength about us.

"Monaco was a game we threw away when we could have got there, and in a way it was a little of the same against Bayern. At 1-1, our heads could have gone down and we could have gone the same way, and maybe that is the slight difference - that we are able to dig in and get the result.

"Liverpool are an extremely strong team, but the atmosphere generated by an all-English clash will make it even tougher. Anfield is a really hard place to go. We went there on New Year's Day and we were slightly fortunate to come away with a win."

It is difficult to see the fruits of a season's labours going pear-shaped now, whether or not Arsenal were to demonstrate their defiance on Wednesday and the Champions' League slipped away again. Even in that event, Lampard would be entitled to believe that Chelsea have established themselves as a welcome third force in the English game: "I think we have issued a statement this season. There was a mental barrier that most teams suffered from with Manchester United and Arsenal dominating the Premier League, because they did pull away from the other teams.

"We had to bridge the gap, and when the new owner came in we knew what we had to do and we have done it. That is testament to us and the club. Maybe in years to come I will sit back and think what a season that was, but at the moment I'm getting on with it."

That was the season, that was. If Terry still hopes to join a list of Footballers of the Year embracing Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton, he is facing as daunting an opponent as any - from inside his own dressing room.

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