By George Ankers
Nearly one year ago, Didier Drogba scored the penalty that won Chelsea the Champions League before announcing that he would be moving on. A personal milestone and a possible Europa League trophy may not be quite the same thing but Frank Lampard would do well to follow his long-time team-mate's example and leave the Blues on a high.
When a friend and an enemy both tell you the same thing, it is worth listening. Drogba timed his exit perfectly and so, now, has Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, bowing out gracefully on a landmark 20th league title. Everyone wants to see their heroes finish fittingly.
The midfielder has been an incredible servant for the Blues - perhaps, after breaking Bobby Tambling's all-time goalscoring record, their best ever. To score (to date) 17 goals in all competitions this season, even as the team shifts around him into a shape to which he is not suited, is another fine feat to add to his already long list of achievements at Stamford Bridge. A magnificent, committed professional, he deserves immense credit.
He could stay on for a reunion with Jose Mourinho, a former manager yet still a friend, but the Portuguese is set to inherit a newer, younger team than when he left. Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar are the Blues' beating heart now.
Across Chelsea's now-customary 4-2-3-1 formation, there are players better suited to each position than Lampard. The attacking midfield roles are unquestionably the domain of the sparkling young trio, with Victor Moses knocking on the door and Andre Schurrle seemingly on the way.
Sitting deeper, John Obi Mikel has come into his own this season, while David Luiz is making a serious case to spend more time alongside him. Soon, Nathaniel Chalobah will return from his loan at Watford and begin to demand exposure to top-level football.
Mourinho could alter the shape to his old 4-3-3 staple if he wanted to - but it would only be to accommodate Lampard out of sentimentality. There is too much promise elsewhere in the squad for that to make sense. For a manager at the start of his cycle - particularly one like Mourinho, who is not one to plan out smooth visions for the future - it would be counterintuitive to shoehorn in the 34-year-old.
"I look at Ryan Giggs and he's got an aura around him," says Lampard admiringly. "You can see all the players at the club are looking up to him. He's the mark, really." Yet, at United, the system has remained amenable to Giggs's reduced capacity in contrast to Chelsea's modern shape. The club are not set up for such a perennial.
Even against Aston Villa, for long periods Lampard struggled to make any mark on the game, the hosts' youthful midfielders brash and confident. It was characteristic determination that kicked in to put him in place for his goals but, at some point, Chelsea must trust their youngsters to show that iron will when things get tough.
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"The easiest part, in terms of the speculation, has been playing games because when you're thinking about it at home it becomes more of a distraction," says Lampard of the constant contract talk - but there would be more time at home next season, more time to ponder if he should be out playing in Los Angeles rather than watching from the sidelines.
An ending colours everything that comes before; that is why 'The Matrix' trilogy is recalled with a shudder and why countries who sing last in the Eurovision running order do better in the voting. That is why Fernando Torres will be remembered in this country more for his hapless misery at Stamford Bridge than his thrills at Liverpool.
Lampard could stay on for another year, should Chelsea ask him to, but why go out on an even more bit-part role and a decline that will only grow steeper? Next season, there will be no record to chase down and there may not be a trophy within his grasp.
In typical Frank Lampard fashion, he has forged an opportunity for glory in an even more turbulent Chelsea season than usual. A final payday in MLS or wherever else he should choose to go is a reward worth taking.
To say goodbye now would see him remembered as a titan to the end, exactly what a club icon such as he deserves. The Blues, thanks in large part to his efforts, will be perfectly fine without him.
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