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May 11, 2013

Lamps breaks record in typical fashion

As Frank Lampard was making a dedication, Rafael Benitez was making a declaration. When asked whether he considered this season a success, the Chelsea boss responded immediately and unequivocally: "100 percent."

The afternoon, then, fitted the sentiment. Because this, really, was a game with everything: a multitude of incidents, a goal-line controversy, two red cards and three goals -- with the last of those arriving as a late winner.

What's more, it ensured that Chelsea's basic targets for the season were completed. The Stamford Bridge side has effectively qualified for the Champions League, and Lampard has finally broken Bobby Tambling's club goal-scoring record. The relief was evident. "It's right up there," Lampard said. "Not much beats Munich because that was amazing for the team and the club, but personally, it is another great day and I am really pleased. I have been here a long time. I lost my mum a few years ago and she was my biggest supporter, so it's for her."

The number is 203, after Lampard struck twice to cancel out Christian Benteke's supreme opener. The numbers for Chelsea as a whole, meanwhile, look set to finally add up to third in the table. Barring a frankly improbable goal-difference swing, they have ensured a place in the top four. Afterward, Benitez wasn't crowing about it but was quietly pleased. "I think it was important for us," he said. "Since I came, everyone was saying it [that we needed to get into the top four]. We are in the position we wanted to be. And also, to be in another final, if we win, even better. We achieved what we wanted to achieve."

Still, though, the fans weren't singing his name. Many of Lampard's current and former teammates, meanwhile, felt the need to put his record forward as the ultimate vindication. It is one of the curious elements around both feats: dispute persists about the two of them. For all the merits of Lampard's excellent career, external praise for him has always wavered somewhere between grudging and glowing. Benitez, meanwhile, hasn't convinced everyone that qualifying for the Champions League is much more than a qualified success -- or that he deserves to take that much credit for it.

Part of the problem was perhaps illustrated in a game like this. Not for the first time, after all, a rotated Chelsea team started in stuttering and unconvincing fashion. For virtually all of the first hour, Villa were the better team, with Benteke far and away their finest performer. The opening goal encapsulated Chelsea's problems as the Belgian effortlessly brushed past Gary Cahill before stroking the ball beyond Petr Cech. On the other side of the defence, John Terry was suffering even further problems and badly struggling with the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and late runs from Villa's midfield. One such surge from Yacouba Sylla, in the 42nd minute, forced the centre-half into an inevitable foul, and there was a sense of fortune that he wasn't sent off.

It could have ensured Chelsea were down to nine men as, just a minute before halftime, Ramires was sent off for a second yellow that was every bit as predictable. It was that kind of game. Paul Lambert later expressed his disappointment with the Terry decision, given that Sylla would have been through on goal, but was a little quieter about Benteke's apparent elbow on Cesar Azpilicueta six minutes before.

That was the other key aspect of the game and led to what Lambert later described as the "turning point." If Chelsea rightfully feared what Benteke was capable of with the ball, Villa should have been worried about what he was going to do without it. As the game became more frantic, the forward became more reckless. Even if his 59th-minute high foot was clumsy rather than malicious, the referee had little option but to give him a red card. And in losing Benteke, Villa lost their initiative.

Up until then, Chelsea had been given something of a runaround by Lambert's side. With only Eden Hazard and Juan Mata providing anything like spark -- not least one delicious 22nd-minute chip from the Spaniard for the ineffective Demba Ba -- the likes of Lampard and Moses looked lost. The English No. 8 has never had anywhere near the natural talent of someone like Mata or even Steven Gerrard. His play and movement are much more mechanical than magic, and there is a certain rigidity to what he does and what he is capable of. At the same time, though, he has always deserved the utmost for making the absolute maximum of that ability. And, here, he made the most of an opening.

Just two minutes after Benteke had been sent off, Lampard found that extra yard to drill home a deflected equaliser. With 10-on-10 and the score all square, there now looked like being only one winner. With its extra talent, Benitez's side was making much better use of the increased space. They could, in fact, have forced the winner.

In the 72nd minute, Ba had a shot that might well have gone over the line and was probably preceded by a Nathan Baker handball. In the 78th, Lampard headed over when he really should have scored. His time would come, however, in every sense. Just moments from the end of normal time, Hazard worked his way into the box to allow Lampard the chance to do what he has always done best: arrive late to finish.

Finally, it all but finished Chelsea's wait to confirm a Champions League place and sets them up for Wednesday's Europa League final. They will likely have to play that game without Hazard and Terry, who were both carried off. The latter's injury was accompanied by a cacophony of jeers from the whole ground.

That soon turned to a certain amount of trepidation, as the defeat means Villa's fate -- however close they are to safety -- remains open. They now need Wigan to either lose or draw at Arsenal on Tuesday to be assured of safety. Lampard and Benitez, however, no longer have such doubts.

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