EVERGREEN midfielder Frank Lampard says signing off his international career in Brazil is a huge “carrot” as he prepares to earn his 100th cap in a match England dare not lose.
England face Ukraine in Kiev tomorrow with a one-point lead at the top of Group H but defeat would leave their hopes of automatic qualification for next year’s eagerly-anticipated World Cup finals hanging by a thread.
The 35-year-old Chelsea player is expected to start alongside Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere in midfield, which would make him the eighth player to win 100 England caps.
Lampard, who began his international career against Belgium in 1999, said the milestone would be something to cherish. “I will be very proud if I get on the pitch because it’s been a long time, but it wouldn’t be enjoyable to reach 100 and get the wrong result,” he told a news conference yesterday.
“We are well aware that this is going to be a pivotal game. If we win we have it very much in our hands, although we still have two difficult home games to come.”
Lampard missed Euro 2012 through injury and, when he appeared to slip down the pecking order at Chelsea, his international future looked uncertain.
He started against Moldova on Friday, however, and was influential in setting up England’s opening goal, scored by Gerrard. “I know this won’t go on forever,” said Chelsea’s record goal-scorer who has notched 29 for England. “But the carrot of Brazil, a huge footballing nation, a World Cup that everyone wants to be at, I would love to take part in that, it’s as simple as that.”
Lampard, who does not expect to be given the captain’s armband for the night, is one of three centurions in the squad with Gerrard and Ashley Cole both on 104 caps.
His midfield combination with Gerrard has not always been a natural fit, with critics suggesting they do not play well together but Lampard believes England now have the perfect blend.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing with Steven,” Lampard said. “We can talk all day about his qualities. But we had a nice mixture the other day, Steven can start a bit deeper and we can switch it around and, with Jack Wilshere, we have a world-class talent. It was an honour to play with them on Friday but Tuesday is going to be a lot tougher.”
Ukraine started their qualifying campaign slowly, but a 4-0 win in Montenegro and a 9-0 hammering of San Marino mean they are breathing down England’s necks in the battle to win the group.
“I’ve been very impressed with them, I think they had a bad start to the group but against us they played with a lot of talent, technical ability and a lot of pace,” Lampard said.
“We weren’t at out best [in the home 1-1 draw at Wembley] that night but to not lose when you’re not at your best is a good thing. We have to go there knowing they are a good team but need to believe in our own ability.”
The pressure on England, micro-monitored by a fevered media, to avoid defeat is enormous, and their cause will not be helped by Danny Welbeck’s absence, especially as three other strikers – Wayne Rooney, Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge – are all out injured.
The main scoring responsibility looks as though it will fall to Southampton striker Rickie Lambert, 31, who has netted in his two matches for England after making his belated debut against Scotland last month and scoring again against Moldova.
Manager Roy Hodgson can call on the experienced Jermain Defoe, who has scored 19 times in his 54 appearances, but whoever plays in attack will rely on chances created from midfield where Michael Carrick could return.
The Manchester United midfielder missed Friday’s match, but could replace Lampard or Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere in a trio anchored by Gerrard.
England won 1-0 in Donetsk the last time the sides met in Ukraine during Euro 2012 but they needed a late Lampard penalty to force a 1-1 draw when they played the reverse qualifier at Wembley a year ago this week.
Since then Ukraine have improved considerably under coach Mykhaylo Fomenko, winning their last four qualifiers with an unbeaten run of eight in all matches over the last 11 months.
Ukraine thumped San Marino 9-0 on Friday night but Fomenko knows that will count for little against England. “It’s necessary to forget about the San Marino victory. We have reached the stage when each game is decisive,” he said.
“It is good that we have no injuries now, but would I settle for a draw against England? I’ll answer that on October 15,” he added, referring to the date the group stage ends.