It happens in football, with some regularity, that the return of a player to first team action or to a former stomping ground dominates the proceedings of a game. So it was, that this weekend three key players returned from their erstwhile hiatus, enforced or otherwise, to leave their mark.
Without question, the most talked about return was that of Frank Lampard’s appearance at Stamford Bridge, not in Chelsea blue, but the light blue of fellow title challengers Manchester City – his first match here since he announced he was leaving the London club.
Lampard, as we all know, is a Chelsea legend – winner of three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups (or sponsored derivatives thereof – before Frank’s time, but my favourite was the Rumblelows Cup – which one was yours?), the Europa League and of course the Champions League on that magical night in Munich. However, his departure from SW6 northwards and along the M62 a bit to big money rivals City was never going to prove popular with everyone.
Of course in the early season fixture, it was Lampard who stole the show, netting a late equalizer to give City a share of the spoils – a fairytale without a happy ending for anyone really. When it became apparent that he would still be on these shores for the re-match, the question was what sort of reception would he receive and could he possibly have such a dramatic impact again? As he was readied as a second-half substitute to cross the white line, a trill could be heard – somewhere between the cheers were some boos and a laughable placard was even displayed from a former fan of Frank.
As it turned out, these minor snipes aside, the drama between these teams had already been played out previously at the Etihad and Lampard’s main on pitch contribution to this affair was his ‘lap of honour’ at the final whistle, soaking up deserved applause from those fans who had once worshipped him during his 13 years at Chelsea, including his contribution to Mourinho’s first machine.
As for the game itself, a 1-1 draw which in the end suited Chelsea more than City, parking the bus as they did in the second-half, ensuring that their northern neighbours would be kept at the arms length of a five point cushion. This could potentially have been eight points, if not for Thibaut Courtois’ ill-advised Superman impression shortly before the interval, which led to City’s equaliser. This quick thinking David Silva effort, from Sergio Aguero’s powerful strike, was in response to a finely crafted goal, led by the pocket-sized genius that is Eden Hazard and clinically dispatched by Loic Remy. Remy was in the side as a replacement for terminator-esque Diego Costa, banned following a stamp on Emre Can during the League Cup semi-final.
Can may wonder if his name is actually Sarah Connor this week as he was on the wrong end of another model T-800 rampage in the shape of Andy Carroll, who was flexing his muscles upon his return to his old haunt, Anfield. This aside, and along with Stewart Downing also back on old turf, their part in this weekend’s endeavours was negligible, and merely a supporting role for perhaps the most welcome of returns, in the shape of Subway’s own Daniel Sturridge. After five months out with a false start or two to endure, Sturridge’s entrance as a second-half substitute could hardly have been more ecstatically received.
In his absence, Liverpool have suffered a shortage of goals from misfiring strikers, the perhaps unfortunate partially used Rickie Lambert and the lamentable Mario Balotelli, with the majority of goals being dispatched by Raheem Sterling, who scored the first goal on Saturday, and skipper Steven Gerrard. As it was, Sturridge took his frustrations out on West Ham, with a superbly taken goal after an exquisite first touch took him away from Winston Reid. The frankly ridiculous goal celebration remains but few Liverpool (and England) fans will hold this against Sturridge, and his goal capped a great day all round for the Merseysiders, in their quest for a top four finish.
From one current England striker to an ex-Three Lion, we saw Jermain Defoe return to Premier League goalscoring in his first appearance at the Stadium of Light in the Premier League since he completed the switch from Toronto FC to Sunderland. The now 32-year-old may well have his best years behind him, but Defoe is still a high calibre forward, who will surely still deliver a good return of goals. His arrival at Sunderland appears to have galvanized the Black Cats, and not to get carried away with one result, but a 2-0 victory against fellow strugglers Burnley is an important result, as these are the type of matches that both teams have to focus on in order to attain survival. Burnley, for their part, decided to play the game wrapped in a tin foil kit, a bold strategy indeed, alas with no end product.
For Sunderland, Defoe’s partnership with a bustling man mountain in Connor Wickham will be crucial to their survival prospects – the classic big man/little man partnership, with a good mix of youth and experience. This could prove to resolve Sunderland’s lack of goals if the two click, and if the service is supplied as it was on Saturday to great effect, with both strikers getting their name on the score-sheet. Defoe, signed on a three-and-a-half year deal, looks like he could prove to be a snip for Gus Poyet’s team.
A final noteworthy return this week was witnessed at Stoke, where in place to watch Jon Walters’ perfect hat-trick perpetuate QPR’s dismal away record was the return of the fearsome face brush of one Roy Keane, someone who knows a thing or two about returning to leave his mark.