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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lampard set for challenge


MUNICH — Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard is determined to end a tumultuous year in style on Saturday after a roller-coaster season which has veered from exile to the brink of Champions League glory.

News photo
Get ready: Frank Lampard (rear) and Ashley Cole take part in a practice session on Tuesday at Chelsea's training ground. AP

Three months ago, Lampard's Chelsea career appeared to be drawing inexorably to a close, with the 33-year-old left on the bench as the Blues crashed to a 3-1 first leg defeat against Napoli in the last 16.

It followed months of tension with Andre Villas-Boas, the young Portuguese manager who had been saddled with the task of breaking up the Chelsea side that had won three league titles since 2005.

Villas-Boa's abrupt dismissal in early March however proved to be the catalyst for change in both Lampard and Chelsea's fortunes.

With Roberto Di Matteo appointed as interim manager, Lampard returned to the starting lineup and scored a nerveless penalty as Chelsea overturned a 3-1 deficit against Napoli with a stunning 4-1 victory.

Although he did not start in the 1-0 first leg quarterfinal win over Benfica, he has played in every match since, producing superb displays in both semifinal matches against Barcelona.

In both games against Barca, Lampard's vision from midfield helped create crucial goals for Didier Drogba and Ramires.

In the absence of the suspended John Terry, Lampard will now captain Chelsea on Saturday for a challenge the long-serving playmaker is relishing.

"I think we were pretty unfancied to get this far at different stages — we looked on the way out against Napoli, then we were drawn against Barcelona," Lampard reflected this week.

"Not that we have surprised ourselves, but when you don't see it coming the fact that you're there in the final is even more enjoyable in a way.

"We've obviously still got to go and win it but it's been a nice thought for the past couple of weeks."

Lampard himself admits that Chelsea's prospects looked bleak in late February as Napoli threatened to cut loose in the last 16 on their way to a 3-1 win.

"We were struggling. It's not just because I was sitting watching it from the outside but you could see that," Lampard said.

"You wouldn't have looked too far ahead of yourself and seen where we are now. We're experienced enough to know things can change very quickly.

"But on that night we were very despondent in the dressing room afterwards and it took a big effort in the weeks in between the two games to turn things around. The home game was obviously a massive turning point — was the major turning point — in our season.

"With experience you know that football changes in two seconds. You go from the worst to the best in a second and the other way around pretty quickly as well. That's the nature of the game.

"We always knew and I always knew that we had the quality. Losing the Napoli game, we knew we were better than that and it took a big effort from everyone at the club — staff, players included — we all had to improve."

While satisfied that his season has been transformed since the departure of Villas-Boas, Lampard is determined to finish on a high in what might be his last opportunity to lift European club soccer's greatest honor.

He agrees with the suggestion that a season of extremes could swing between his lowest ebb as a Chelsea player to its zenith with victory on Saturday.

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