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Dec 30, 2012

Last action hero wins the day

Maybe Hollywood beckons for Frank Lampard, like David Beckham before him, but in the meantime, he is Chelsea's equivalent of the silver screen's ageing action heroes. Older and slower he may be, but he retains the skills, the instincts and the calmness under pressure that enabled him to shoot to prominence. Twice legs in their 35th year took him to the edge of the six-yard box; twice Lampard found the net. Everton's long unbeaten run at Goodison Park was over.

The Chelsea pensioner remains the poacher supreme, making it all the more remarkable that he will be released next summer. Ingratitude towards Stamford Bridge's finest midfielders is one of Roman Abramovich's less endearing traits but Chelsea's loss could be Los Angeles Galaxy's gain.

In the short term, he is starring in a picture with varying plotlines: Lampard's own race against time to overhaul Bobby Tambling and become Chelsea's record scorer before he is consigned to their history; Rafa Benitez's bid for the Premier League title that eluded him at Liverpool; Abramovich's quest to prove that ruthless firing-and-hiring is the way to run a football club.

"Everton have had ten years with the same manager doing the same things, so they have a great advantage," Benitez said, giving a different slant on the meeting of the budget-conscious and the billionaire's plaything. "It was a great win for us." With the resilience they showed and the best result of the Benitez era - if such a description can be applied to an interim manager's time in charge - it produced the conclusion that Chelsea are title challengers. It is not easy to make up 11 points, even with a game in hand, but nor is Manchester United's an insurmountable lead.

A 14-point gap, however, may have been too big a gulf to bridge. That beckoned for Chelsea after Steven Pienaar's second-minute opener. Instead Lampard, in time-honoured fashion, arrived unmarked to head in Ramires' cross and then converted the rebound after Tim Howard had parried Juan Mata's shot. No matter how many flair players Chelsea possess, the reality is that a more functional midfielder is the club's finest finisher. He thinks like a striker, as the 191st and 192nd Chelsea goals showed.

"He is a great player and if he can score goals every game I will be pleased," Benitez added. "My job is to bring the best from him until the end of the season." And then, of course, neither may be at Stamford Bridge.

But, as he had at Leeds 11 days earlier, Lampard helped Chelsea come from behind in an awkward away game. It was a suitable conclusion to a successful year for him - 2012 was when the darling of Stamford Bridge attracted new admirers for his responsible, selfless performances in the Champions League. The paradox that the long-term deputy is, in a way, Chelsea's greatest captain, their only European Cup-winning skipper. And, as the Londoners demonstrated their grit, it was a day when the leadership of John Terry was not missed.

And yet it was an also another occasion when Everton were left to lament what might have been. Draws have been a regular source of frustration this season, but defeat was far more galling, especially as they were terrific for much of the match. "We played really well and we've run the European champions really close," David Moyes said.

This was a legitimate hard-luck story. Last year Liverpool were the Merseyside team who discovered the goalposts exerted a magnetic effect on their shots. This time it is Everton, who have struck wood 17 times. They were thrice denied and, even though the first led to Pienaar's goal, Nikica Jelavic cemented his role as the nearly man, curling a free-kick against the post and hitting the bar with a diving header.

"We were unfortunate," Moyes added. "Jela had a chance in the 92nd minute to make it 2-2." Yet his inability to take it continued a trend in a long-running saga.

Moyes and Benitez renewed a rivalry that began in 2004 and where the latter has usually come out on top yet, in a start when the Scot outwitted the Spaniard and Everton outworked Chelsea, a rare triumph seemed on the cards.

Everton's tried-and-tested ploy of starting at pace was aided by more unexpected tactical changes. Victor Anichebe became a hulking left winger, against the rather more slender Cesar Azplicueta; Pienaar was liberated to play as a No. 10. Both were contributory factors in Everton's opener, Anichebe climbing above Azplicueta to meet Phil Jagielka's cross. The post denied him but not Pienaar, instigator of the move.

Then he was the game's dominant figure while Luiz struggled in their duel. The Brazilian can be a rampaging midfielder but is not a holding player - certainly not when his duties entail policing a quick-witted opponent like Pienaar. But, as though it were a game of chess, Benitez recalibrated his team, sending Mata into the middle and Ramires to the right. But the game was decided when the veteran twice went from holding midfielder to penalty-box predator. Lampard may soon be finished at Chelsea, but he can still finish.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Frank Lampard. A captain's performance. Played with intelligence and maturity. Rarely roamed forward but, when he did, he was deadly.

EVERTON VERDICT: There were excellent performances from Pienaar and Sylvain Distin, in particular. However, for the first time in his three-match ban, they missed Marouane Fellaini, especially as Phil Neville and Darron Gibson were both injured. It is a regular observation but Everton lack strength in depth; it was particularly apparent with their callow substitutes here. A concern for Moyes is that they have not kept a clean sheet in their last 15 league games but the last 12 months have brought 68 points and the manager added: "2012 has been a good year for us."

CHELSEA VERDICT: Whether or not the performance merited victory, it was a huge result. It was significant that Benitez shored up the side by playing Luiz, Lampard and Ramires in midfield with the manager using the latter to try and stop Leighton Baines. Oscar was on the bench, providing further evidence that Benitez is not the Brazilian's biggest admirer. Now that talks with Demba Ba's representatives have begun, Fernando Torres' time as an automatic choice may be coming to an end. Benitez thought it unlikely Terry will be fit for the midweek game against QPR.

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