By Paul Saffer
The central contest - in every sense - of Chelsea FC's encounter with FC Bayern München will involve two men who once had reputations for not fulfilling their true potential but are now regarded as perhaps the finest midfielders in the business.
Michael Ballack of Bayern has been universally considered world class since his spectacular 2001/02 season. But coming up on the rails has been Frank Lampard, whose stock seemingly grows by the week.
The senior of the pair by nearly two years, Ballack, 28, was a product of the old East German youth structure. He made his first-team debut for Chemnitzer FC as a teenager, and soon joined 1. FC Kaiserslautern.
Meanwhile, Lampard came from another famous academy system, that of West Ham United FC. Indeed, he was steeped in the London club's legend - his namesake father played and coached there, and his uncle, Harry Redknapp, was manager.
Swiftly rising up the ranks, the 17-year-old Lampard made his Premiership debut in May 1996. He was a West Ham regular at 20, and was soon captaining England's Under-21 side.
However, neither player's path from this point was smooth. No sooner had he arrived at Kaiserslautern, than Ballack fell out with coach Otto Rehhagel. Considered by some a languid player, he was never an automatic starter. He eventually joined Bayer 04 Leverkusen in 1999, having just won his first Germany cap.
Lampard too had his difficulties. Although a fixture at West Ham and an international debutant in 1999, England coach Kevin Keegan soon discarded him and tabloid newspapers gleefully reported his off-pitch activities. When Chelsea FC paid €16m for Lampard, many critics believed he was too unreliable to justify that fee.
Soon all doubts about either disappeared. Ballack overcame a serious knee injury and added a new steel to his game that transformed his and his club's fortunes. Leverkusen were narrowly pipped to the Bundesliga title in all of his three seasons there, and in 2001/02 he starred as they reached the UEFA Champions League and German Cup finals.
Better than Beckenbauer?
Ballack then inspired Germany to the FIFA World Cup final. Klaus Toppmöller, his coach at Leverkusen, once said: "I have played against [Franz] Beckenbauer, Günter Netzer and Wolfgang Overath, but Ballack is the most complete player."
That summer he went to Bayern for €12.9m, and proving he could play in a defensive as well as an attacking midfield role, helped them to the domestic double. His form last season slipped, but not for long. "
No other goalscoring midfielder in the world is better than Michael Ballack," declared Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness.
As for Lampard, in an ever-evolving Chelsea team, he has missed just one league game since joining. He forced his way back into England's starting lineup on the eve of UEFA EURO 2004™, where he was named in the All-Star Squad.
He is now perhaps the key performer for both club and country, as has an uncanny ability to score goals both spectacular and timely. Brazil great Carlos Alberto Torres said last week when his Azerbaijan side played England: "[He is] the best midfielder in the world.
Lampard plays total football."
The Englishman pipped Ballack on to the short list for Best Midfielder at the 2004 UEFA European Football Awards, but the German can now exact revenge as he searches for the one trophy he missed at Leverkusen that he has not lifted with Bayern. It should be a gripping contest.
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