This may be the era of squad rotation but nobody told that to Frank Lampard. A member of one of the most costly collectives in football history at Chelsea, where Jose Mourinho has at least two international-class options for each position, there is simply no substitute for the England midfielder.
Lampard's importance to the English champions was highlighted yet again on 26 November when he made his 160th consecutive league appearance for the club against Portsmouth, a record in the Premiership's short history. An inspirational presence in Chelsea's midfield, it was typical of the player that he should mark this milestone with a goal, given he rivals the club's strikers as the Londoners' main scoring threat.
That goal left Lampard with 12 goals for his club from the first four months of the season but it is not just his goals that led Chelsea manager Mourinho to declare that he would not swap his No8 for anyone. "Other players have great talent - Ronaldinho, (Andriy) Shevchenko, Kaka - but this is my favourite player," the Portuguese said after the Portsmouth match. "Lampard has everything from the physical point of view, technically, tactically and what he has in his brain is fantastic.''
Since his last absence from a league fixture in October 2001, shortly after his arrival at Chelsea in an £11million transfer from West Ham United, Lampard has turned his undoubted potential into unquestionable prowess. Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, his partner in England's midfield, believes Lampard is "probably the most improved player in the world" over the last two years, describing his progress in that time as "unbelievable".
Praise from Stevie G
"Frank is a great player," Gerrard told FIFA.com. "Like myself he loves going forward and getting goals and over the past two seasons he is probably the most improved player in the world. He is a credit to himself. He has got everything about his game and at the moment, on current form, I would say that he is the best in the world."
It is now ten years since the 27-year-old Lampard stepped off the renowned production line at West Ham United, the club where he grew up under the tutelage of his father and uncle, Frank Lampard Sr. and Harry Redknapp, who were assistant manager and manager respectively. There were ups and downs at Upton Park for the young Lampard, as he recalled when he collected his award for the English Football Writers' Player of the Year last May. "I remember running on the touchline and being told, 'Go and sit down with your uncle and dad because you're not good enough to get on the pitch'."
That same night Lampard cited "my strength, my determination, my character" as the keys to his success. A schoolboy cross-country runner, his resilience certainly stood him in good stead in his battle to establish himself in the West Ham team (alongside his contemporary and good friend Rio Ferdinand) and then later in the national team. Although Lampard's England debut came against Belgium in 1999, he had to wait until after the 2003/04 season to win a regular starting place in the side.
Since coming off the bench to claim his first goal for England in the 3-1 friendly win against Croatia in August 2003, Lampard has become a permanent presence on Sven-Goran Eriksson's team sheet. After ending that season with double figures for Chelsea, he struck three times for England at UEFA EURO 2004, his first senior international tournament, and by the close of the 2004 calendar year was receiving recognition for this breakthrough in the shape of the prize for Official England Player of the Year. No small achievement given Wayne Rooney's feats at EURO 2004.
Since then Lampard has only got better. His Barcelona-supporting, Spanish girlfriend Elen may not be able to understand why he cannot score goals like Ronaldinho but what he does instead is score them like Lampard - that is to say, with remarkable regularity. In England's qualifying campaign for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, Lampard finished as their top scorer with five goals, setting the seal on a successful campaign with the winning strikes in their final two qualifiers against Austria and Poland. Against the Austrians it was from the penalty spot that he struck, having taken over that particular duty from David Beckham, while against Poland it was an exquisite volleyed effort that won the match - a goal struck with the confidence becoming a player at the very top of his game.
For Chelsea, of course, Lampard does much the same. Driving forward from midfield, he scored 18 times in all competitions last season including both goals in the 2-0 win at Bolton Wanderers that secured Mourinho's team a first league title in 50 years. This season he is on course to surpass that total and help Chelsea to a second successive championship. The UEFA Champions League and FIFA World Cup are other objectives for a player for whom the horizon appears a place of endless possibilities right now.
And Lampard will do his utmost to ensure not a single one passes him by. "I've always had a natural determination to compete," he told an interviewer recently. "If someone's better than me I try to stay with them. I've got that extra bit inside that pushes me on."