As the Chelsea machine was rocked by a series of setbacks in mid-December, few expected Michael Ballack to emerge as the man to hold their title challenge together.
Injuries to captain John Terry, midfield talisman Frank Lampard and striker Didier Drogba looked set to derail the Blues' Premier League charge, yet Ballack has stepped forward as a leader for manager Avram Grant and is relishing the responsibility coming his way.
Scoring important goals and strutting with the confidence he appeared to have lost, the Germany captain of old has turned up in recent weeks and while you may not expect and established international player of Ballack's standing to be in need of a confidence boost, it seems the man management of Grant has extracted the best from a player who rarely looked at ease under the guidance of former Chelsea boss, Jose Mourinho.
'You have the feeling you've become a forgotten man and you have to start again from scratch after your return from a long injury,' begins Ballack. 'There is a need to prove yourself all over again, but all the frustration is history now and I can look forward with confidence.
'I knew I would not be certain of a place in the side when I returned from injury. When you are at a big club like Chelsea and the competition for places is always so hot, the only answer is to deliver consistently and I'm confident I am up to the task. I'm pleased Avram Grant is putting his faith in me, but it's not written in stone that it will be always so. He has so many good options in midfield that no one can be sure of selection.'
'Naturally I'm very pleased with the way my return to the first team has gone. It makes all the difference in the world that I stepped into a side in an excellent run of form.
'From day one, it felt so good to be back and I've been fortunate to score a few important goals, which is a massive bonus. Even though I'm not sure about my match fitness percentage-wise, I'm feeling stronger physically and mentally every day. I think the bad days are behind me now.'
Vilified by many as a mercenary who exposed Chelsea as a retirement home for aging footballers seeking one last payday, Ballack has rarely shown the form that made him one of the best players in Europe in his season and a half in West London.
He may have been signed on a free transfer from Bayern Munich in the summer of 2006, but his twenty-month stint at Stamford Bridge has seen him reap close to £10m already, thanks to his £120,000-a-week salary. Arriving at the same time as Andriy Shevchenko didn't do him any favours either as the growing army of Chelsea haters threw Ballack and the faltering Ukrainian together as examples of all that was wrong with the Stamford Bridge club.
Many felt the presence of Lampard in the midfield and the powerful leadership abilities of Terry had taken something away from Ballack after a career when he has become used to being the top man for club and country. At Chelsea, he has become merely another star among many and his poor form on the field suggested he didn't like his new role.
When he then underwent ankle surgery in his homeland last April, apparently without the knowledge of anyone at Chelsea, and he was omitted from the club's Champions League squad, his lucrative stay in West London appeared to be at an end, but he has turned his career around in style of late.
Grant's move to hand Ballack the Chelsea captain's armband was a shot in the arm that reignited his passion for the game and he seems to have thrived on the additional responsibility
'Being made Chelsea captain was a real honour for me,' he continues. 'I must admit I didn't see it coming because the captain's armband isn't often given to a foreign player. It's a great boost to my confidence, recognition of my place at the club and my performances.
'Of course, I'm not a warrior like John Terry and he will take the armband back as soon as he is fit again, but I love being the captain. I can only do this job by staying true to my personality. I like to lead by example and at Bayern and with Germany and it's proved successful.
|“||The captain's armband isn't often given to a foreign player. It's a great boost to my confidence, recognition of my place at the club and my performances. ”|
|Chelsea midfielder, Michael Ballack|
'When you've been out injured for some considerable time, you look for things to help you get back into the groove and the coach's decision to make me captain has undoubtedly worked in that sense.'
After Manchester United's shock defeat against local rivals Manchester City on Sunday, Ballack believes Chelsea's title challenge is very much on course and he believes their tag of outsiders suits them perfectly.
'I get the feeling people are overlooking Chelsea as a force at the moment and I'm convinced we will be strong challengers for the Premier League title this season,' states the 31-year-old, speaking with real enthusiasm for the game once again.
'Everyone is talking about Manchester United and Arsenal and the role of outsiders is a strange one for Chelsea, but it just might be to our advantage. We have the pride and talent to surprise the critics and the Champions League is also a big target for us.
'When we lost some key players due to injury, everyone expected Chelsea to fall away in the Premier League, but the opposite has been true and now we are closer than ever to the sides in the top two positions.
'When you think we still have to play Arsenal and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, I feel we are in a very powerful position. With all our injured players coming back and the African Nations Cup finished, ignoring Chelsea would be a big error.'
The departure of Mourinho may have been the biggest turning point in Ballack's Chelsea career as it was felt the maverick former Chelsea boss would always put Frank Lampard ahead of the German thrust upon him by a club keen to sign what they described as 'marquee star names'.
In Mourinho's mind, Lampard was a more complete Premier League player than the less mobile Ballack, yet the German has nothing but praise for the coach who so publicly rebuffed him with that Champions League squad omission.
'Mourinho's departure was a shock and adjustments had to be made,' he adds. 'However, we are all professionals and carry on doing what we do best. The winning mentality Mourinho put in place here has not left us.
'Avram Grant has taken over and of course he has to stamp his own authority on the job, but the Mourinho influence remains to a large extent. Most of the players here have much to thank Jose for. He took this club to the very top and will never be forgotten.'
It seemed implausible that Michael Ballack would join Mourinho as a Chelsea legend after his woeful first 18 months at the club, yet heroes can rise and fall so quickly in the fickle world of football.