x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ballack's career marked by nearly and not quite

Michael Ballack's career may well be marked by comments such as 'nearly', 'almost' and 'not quite'. Yet Chelsea has not been the same since he left and the 35 year old could be just what they are missing right now.

As Chelsea contemplate a shift in their status from perennial title challengers to one of the sides squabbling for England's remaining Champions League places, they encounter a reminder of the days when they were merely second best.

In one respect, that is manifestly unfair on Michael Ballack. The Londoners won silverware in each of his final two games in their colours, lifting the Premier League and the FA Cup respectively in May 2010.

And yet the senior citizen of the Bayer Leverkusen midfield has the unwanted status of football's greatest nearly man.

To paraphrase the game show host tormenting unlucky contestants, look at what he could have won: in 2002, the trio of near-misses that led to Bayer Leverkusen being branded "Neverkusen" as they finished second in the Bundesliga, the German Cup and the Champions League.

To compound the sense of misfortune, Germany were runners-up in that year's World Cup.

Second again in Euro 2008, third in the 2006 World Cup, Ballack finished for his country on 98 caps, significantly and sadly, two short of another landmark.

He has finished second in the league five times, including the second treble that was not: in 2008, Chelsea were thwarted at the last in the Carling Cup, the Premier League and the Champions League.

"So near and yet so far" could be the motto for Ballack's career and Chelsea's Champions League history alike.

And yet, while their ultimate ambition remains unfulfilled, Ballack's four years in London represented something of a golden age for Chelsea. Arguably they have never properly recovered from his departure; of the five senior players who left in 2010, only the classy Ricardo Carvalho has been missed more.

This reunion on Wednesday night comes at a time when Andre Villas-Boas is struggling with his midfield. The Portuguese is attempting to shoehorn a regular goalscorer (Frank Lampard), a high-energy, box-to-box player (Ramires), a playmaker (Raul Meireles) and a holding player (John Obi Mikel) into, at most, three places.

At his best, however, Ballack possessed a combination of attributes that meant he provided something of everything. Now 35, he no longer has the dynamism that Ramires exhibits but he ended his time at Stamford Bridge as an authoritative anchorman, something Mikel is not.

The goals are rarer as Ballack has dropped deeper - in keeping with the nature of his career, he will probably end just short of 200 for club and country - but, playing in an advanced role, he scored the opener against Kaiserslautern in Saturday's 2-0 win.

But, as he accepts, the end beckons. "I have never said I want to stop, but if you are 35 years old and your contract expires [next year], it is normal you are concerned," he said. Securing another season in the Champions League is his priority but Leverkusen lie seventh in the Bundesliga.

A win tonight would make qualification for this season's last 16 a probability. But, given the theme of Ballack's footballing life, another near miss is more likely.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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