What a difference a year makes eh? This time last year, the mere mention of the name Ballack would be met by a range of expletives with one common meaning – lazy. Whilst everyone else focused on Shevchenko’s lack of goals, I couldn’t help thinking Ballack was getting away with murder. True, Sheva was hardly keeping the goal net industry in business with the damage he was doing them but at least when he played, he looked like he was putting in some effort. Ballack, on the other hand, always looked like he was auditioning for a window display at Burton’s, such was his apparent lack of exertion.
Of course there must’ve been reasons why he always looked more like a bloke on the common looking for his dog than a Premier League player earning his millions on the pitch, not least of all the fact he’d arrived pretty unfit off the back of Germany’s World Cup campaign. That was never going to help, when, by his own admission, the slower pace of the Bundesliga meant he was accustomed to more time on the ball to start with. So he found the physical nature of the Premier League difficult to adapt to and was even noted to get the right hump with his team mates in training when challenged too enthusiastically.
To be fair to him though, Ballack seemingly played part of his season with an undiagnosed ankle problem – apparently getting fed up waiting for Chelsea’s medical staff to learn how to read an x-ray before doing a bunk to Germany on the sly. Whether their doctors are actually any better is a matter for debate though, as his rehabilitation stretched on for some eight long months as a result of nerve damage. In the interim though, we’d lost a Champions League semi-final to Liverpool and the title to Utd and the German’s absence was duly noted.
Anyway, he obviously felt more criticism than I’d noticed aimed his way because he attributes “this grumbling in the stadium” and the realisation that supporters in England expect to see more than the odd strut here and there, to the change in his game. And we’re definitely seeing the sort of performances we’d expected from Ballack this season. Big games need big players and he definitely doesn’t shy away from the big games. He might still struggle with the pace of the Premier League but he makes up for that with his possession and passing and as for the question of the passion so obviously missing last term, just try and get in his way when he wants to take a free-kick (eh Drogba?)
I did start to wonder whether his new-found motivation was the result of this season’s change in management, after all, we were led to believe Ballack wasn’t exactly a player of Mourinho’s choosing. However, rumour has it when Grant stepped in for the departing Mourinho, Ballack was one of the more outspoken players, making his team mates very aware of his feelings on the subject. Even now, his subtle response to questioning doesn’t scream out in support of his new manager. When recently asked whether Chelsea are successful in spite of, as opposed to because of Grant, Ballack replied “The team certainly has enough class.” Even after our Champions League victory against Liverpool, this stance had softened only marginally, with Ballack saying “Players take on responsibility, and very often do the right thing. We’ve won many games because of our individual class. We don’t play as well as we could, but it’s always difficult to change the style of a team. Sometimes that takes years. I noticed this incredible bond between the players and José. He always protected the players and made some of them who they are today. When he went, many players refused to believe it. There was a sort of silent protest within themselves, they wanted to get their old manager back. That was a difficult situation for Grant, not easy for him. But the longer the season went, success showed us that we can grow together. It’s early days, but something might develop.”
However, whatever his feelings about Grant, this season, having finally delivered what is asked of him, Michael Ballack has become a firm favourite at Stamford Bridge. But, given he isn’t completely over the previous management regime, would losing out on both the title and the Champions League see him follow Grant’s predecessor out the door?