Lampard reprises reprieve role
Few occupy as curious a position as Frank Lampard. Even as he reprises his goalscoring habit that has been a feature of Chelsea for a decade, it is with a bittersweet twist. He is the reluctant rescue act.
When Andre Villas-Boas needs a goal most, the man he is phasing out tends to oblige. The week after Arsenal struck five times at Stamford Bridge, Lampard delivered the winner at Blackburn. When his record against the major clubs became an issue, the 33-year-old converted the decisive penalty against Manchester City. And when Chelsea went four league games without a win, that run was ended, in a dramatic conclusion, by Lampard. But for his interventions, the Portuguese's position would be more precarious than it already is.
This is the old guard propping up the new regime; not with his performances, which are often undistinguished, but with his goals. For a manager only eight months his senior, there is a sense he is both foe and friend, dragging Chelsea back to the past when Villas-Boas attempts to remodel the side and pulling the manager out of trouble whenever he requires a goal.
Chelsea will not become London's answer to Barcelona, with a pressing, possession-based game with Lampard at its heart, yet his predatory instincts remain intact and he arrived in the penalty area to convert Ashley Cole's 89th-minute cross. Invited to praise his match-winner, Villas-Boas declined. "I think the team did magnificently well, no matter who scores," he said. It was scarcely a resounding endorsement.
Indeed, Lampard's name only crossed his lips once, as a result of the midfielder's other noteworthy contribution. A poor challenge on Adam Hammill should have resulted in his expulsion with Lampard accepting he was lucky to stay on the pitch. Referee Peter Walton, a frazzled figure who floundered in the first half, opted for a yellow card. "The challenge might have been over the top but I think Peter considered that Frank is not that type of player," said Villas-Boas. "I would congratulate his decision and his criteria-making during the game."
His charges' decision-making was instructive, too. When Ramires opened the scoring, lifting a shot into the roof of the net after John Terry flicked on Juan Mata's corner, the midfielder headed straight for the touchline. David Luiz, Oriol Romeu, Raul Meireles, Jose Bosingwa and Cole joined him, sprinting across the pitch to celebrate with the embattled manager. It was a picture of unity for the photographers, an image to suggest the reports of unrest are untrue.
"It's just part of the way they feel at the moment," said Villas-Boas, denying any prior knowledge of their plans. "It's more about team spirit." To the cynics, it was staged. This is a club that is hardly the model of harmony and, while Terry was a belated addition to Villas-Boas' support group, Fernando Torres was conspicuous by his absence. Lampard got there as quickly as he could, prompting quips about his lack of pace, but by then the party was breaking up.
For Villas-Boas, the result, rather than the gathering on the touchline, was proof of unity. "It is normal for stories to come out speculating about untrue things," he said, suggesting normality has a different meaning at Chelsea. Nonetheless, rumours of unrest persist.
Trouble was confirmed in one dressing room. "I've had a proper snarl," said Mick McCarthy, angered at the late concession and reluctant to discuss Lampard's reprieve. "It's irrelevant if defend a bleeding cross. I'm livid. It was professional suicide. We got back to 1-1 and you should have seen a happy Mick McCarthy, if there is such a thing."
Depleted as they were, his side had held their own. Dominant at the start, Chelsea were fortunate not to concede before the break. Roger Johnson headed Hammill's free-kick against the post as the visitors struggled with their set-piece marking. Clean sheets are rare, and they were denied another when Wolves rallied. Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher set up Stephen Ward to level with a half-volley.
It was the sort of clinical finishing Torres had demonstrated on his previous trip to Molineux. Then, however, he was a Liverpool player. As Chelsea's spearhead, his record stands at five goals in 39 games. While his distribution was an asset, his finishing was wayward. A strange attempt to score from the centre circle almost resulted in him hitting the corner flag. Compared to team-mates past and present, he is no Xabi Alonso, and no Lampard either.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ramires - Used further forward as the right of the attacking trident, the Brazilian responded by scoring his sixth goal of the season. He brings a level of dynamism Chelsea otherwise lack and combined well with the similarly influential Mata, making long-distance runs to meet the Spaniard's defence-splitting passes.
WOLVES VERDICT: They had come from behind to take a point in each of their three previous games and almost managed to again, aided by some influential changes from McCarthy. He had kept Fletcher and Jarvis in reserve and both were involved in Ward's goal. Among the deputies promoted, Hammill excelled on the right flank, providing some fine crosses, while Emmanuel Frimpong, borrowed from Arsenal, had a promising debut in the centre of midfield. But while Wolves are hard to beat, they have only won twice in the league since August.
CHELSEA VERDICT: A win was a step forward in one respect, but problems persist. Chelsea are far from watertight at the back - their move for Gary Cahill is no closer to a conclusion and but for Petr Cech's injury-time save from Kevin Doyle, Wolves would have levelled - and Torres will become more significant when Didier Drogba goes to the African Cup of Nations. Both he and Daniel Sturridge were missing with injuries, though neither is serious.