||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2004
Thursday, September 4, 2003
ESPNsoccernet: September 9, 5:00 PM UK
Lampard holds the key
When England faced Macedonia at St Mary's in October last year, Frank Lampard was nothing more than a spectator on the substitutes' bench as Sven-Goran Eriksson's side scrambled a disappointing 2-2 draw.
However, as England take to the field against Macedonia in Skopje on Saturday - for the first of a Euro 2004 qualifying double header - the £11million Chelsea player could well find himself the key man in a depleted England midfield.
With regulars Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard already ruled out through injury, along with Trevor Sinclair, and skipper David Beckham recovering from a groin strain, the 25-year-old has a golden opportunity to throw down the gauntlet to England's established midfield stars after years of knocking on the door.
The perennial fringe player, who made his full England debut against Belgium back in 1999, was expected to figure in some capacity after battling his way onto England's problem left flank recently, but Scholes' absence means that Lampard can now stake his claim for the much-coveted attacking midfield role.
Against Croatia, the former West Ham United player was successfully moved infield to replace the substituted Scholes, after starting the match out of position on the left, and marked the move with his first international strike.
England won the match at Portman Road 3-1 and Eriksson's hand looks forced to ask Lampard to resume the role - a guise he already fulfills with Chelsea.
His timely goal against Croatia, and a series of impressive displays with his club, have propelled Lampard up the England pecking order and with Scholes, who is struggling for international form and has not scored since May 2001, missing Lampard is eager to take his chance.
'I think this is my time,' the Romford-born player said. 'The four players who usually get in are all world-class and they have performed at international level.
'I would never pick one out and say I want to get in front of him but I do feel more confident with England now than I have done before and able to play in any of the four midfield positions.
'From being on the fringe, I am now regarded as someone who is challenging for a place in the full side.
'The next step is to perform in the important qualifying games and show you are worthy of a start.'
Barring any late problems, Lampard will get two competitive games to show his worth and as a player who has had to constantly prove his critics wrong he will be relishing a pivotal role as England push for top spot in their Euro 2004 qualifying group.
And the metaphorical carrot of a major tournament will look increasingly juicy to Lampard, who failed to make the Euro 2000 squad and also narrowly missed out on Eriksson's final squad for the World Cup.
The latter set-back forced the player to take stock of his situation and with the help of his father Frank, a former player and assistant to Harry Redknapp at West Ham, and Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri he ironed out the flaws in his game to arguably become last season's most improved player.
'When I was left out of the World Cup squad, I decided to take more responsibility in games and become more of a pivotal figure,' Lampard admitted.
'I spoke to my dad every day after training and Claudio Ranieri was brilliant
as well, making me aware of the parts of my game maybe I hadn't paid much
attention to at West Ham.'
Such has been his improvement that despite big name, and big money, arrivals at Chelsea the Englishman has kept his place in a multi-national squad that boasts the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Geremi, Damien Duff, Emmanuel Petit - and now Claude Makelele.
Lampard has come a long way since his days as a West Ham youth player, meeting challenge after challenge, and he must grasp this international opportunity - even if a top draw performance only results in a temporary return to England's stepping-stone left wing,
With Chelsea having qualified for the Champions League this term, Lampard fulfills one of Eriksson's unspoken top player criteria and, as long as he can hold down a regular first team place at Chelsea, he will surely add substantially to his 12 England caps.
Chelsea's European excursions will also be of huge benefit to left-back Wayne Bridge's England ambitions, as it will for team-mate John Terry - who may follow up his impressive display against Croatia with a start against Macedonia as a replacement for Rio Ferdinand.
Eriksson's other injury doubt is Newcastle's Kieron Dyer who, like Beckham, faces a fitness test this week.
Goalkeepers: David James (West Ham), Paul Robinson (Leeds), Ian Walker (Leicester)
Defenders: Phil Neville (Man Utd), Gary Neville (Man Utd), Ashley Cole (Arsenal), Wayne Bridge (Chelsea), Danny Mills (Leeds), Sol Campbell (Arsenal), John Terry (Chelsea), Matthew Upson (Birmingham)
Midfielders: David Beckham (Real Madrid), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich), Nicky Butt (Man Utd), Kieron Dyer (Newcastle), Danny Murphy (Liverpool)
Strikers: Michael Owen (Liverpool), Emile Heskey (Liverpool), James Beattie (Southampton), Wayne Rooney (Everton).
Goalkeepers: Petar Milosevski (Malatyaspor), Jane Nikoloski (Sloga Jugomagnat Skopje)
Defenders: Goce Sedloski (Dinamo Zagreb), Igor Mitreski (Spartak Moscow), Igor Gjuzelov (Metalurg Donetsk), Pance Cumbev (Pobeda Prilep), Goran Stavrevski (Diyarbakirspor), Milan Stojanovski (Partizan Belgrade)
Midfielders: Velice Sumolikoski (Synot), Vanco Trajanov (Lokomotiv Plovdiv), Vlatko Grozdanovski (Vardar Skopje), Igor Jancevski (Varteks Varazdin), Aginaldo Braga (Vardar Skopje), Goran Pandev (Ancona), Alexander Mitreski (Grasshoppers)
Strikers: Ilco Naumoski (Graz AK), Artim Sakiri (West Bromwich Albion), Georgi Hristov (Zwolle), Draganco Dimitrovski (Pobeda Prilep)
If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.