Ballack back to his best

Whether or not Ballack can inspire Chelsea to silverware this season remains to be seen, but whatever happens, he has come a long way since he first joined up with German minnows Chemnitz at the age of six, writes Keir Mackay.

Michael Ballack’s arrival in English football was preceded by a string of plaudits for the star’s technical ability.

However, his early days at Chelsea were marred by occasional dips in form as, amid the frequent changes in management, he struggled to shine among the club’s already star-packed squad.

Ballack’s time at Stamford Bridge has been anything but smooth. Until, that is, the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti this year, with the Italian boss helping the German back to his best.

Whether or not he can inspire his team to silverware this season remains to be seen, but whatever happens, Ballack has come a long way since he first joined up with German minnows Chemnitz at the age of six.

After making his debut in 1995, Ballack’s return of 13 goals from 67 appearances inevitably attracted the attention of several bigger clubs, and it was not long before Kaiserslautern signed the ‘Little Kaiser’.

A 4.1 million euro deal was signed and sealed in 1997 and Ballack was immediately handed a pivotal role in his first season with the club. He netted four goals, despite originally being signed as a sweeper, although he was eventually pushed forward and given more attacking freedom before grabbing his first big break at title contenders Leverkusen.

Coaches Christoph Daum and Klaus Toppmoller recognised his growing talent and decided to offer the German free reign of the club’s midfield.

His passing efficiency and an eye for goal developed over the coming seasons, as he netted 27 times in three years.

But it was Ballack’s next move that would propel him to forefront of Europe’s elite band of midfielders. Following an impressive performance at the 2002 World Cup, in which Germany finished runners-up, Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich signed Ballack for 12.9 million euros.

In his first season with the Bavarians, Ballack led the team to a league and cup double before more success in 2005. Meanwhile, he won the German player of the year award three times.

However, despite an impressive haul of 44 goals in 107 appearances for the club and recognition as Europe’s best midfielder by UEFA, he soon fell out of favour with the club’s hierarchy, and after public criticisms from head coach Uli Hoeness and Bayern legend Franz Beckenbauer, Ballack soon moved on — joining Chelsea on a free transfer in 2006.

In his first season in England, the German found the net eight times in all competitions but failed to make himself a regular name on Chelsea’s team-sheet. Growing injury problems cost him a place in that year’s FA Cup-winning side and the star struggled to make the kind of impact he had hoped for.

Chelsea’s revolving door of management limited the midfielder’s chances, while the influx of holding midfielders, such as John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien, forced Ballack to the bench on several occasions.

Ballack’s turmoil increased after surgery ruled him out of Chelsea’s UEFA Champions League squad in 2007/08 until the knockout stages, but he soon returned to help the Blues to a runners-up finish in the Champions League and the Premier League, and his country to second place in Euro 2008.

Last season was again frustrating, as more managerial changes — Luiz Felipe Scolari started the campaign and Guus Hiddink ended it — meant Chelsea struggled to challenge for the title and lost out in the semi-finals of the Champions League.

However, following the arrival of Ancelotti this summer the Blues and Ballack have gone from strength to strength, and the German has revelled in his role as part of the Italian’s new-look diamond formation.

Ballack has faced continuous heartache at the international level, losing a World Cup and European Cup final during his career. Most recently, last year’s Champions League semi-final defeat against Barcelona and the 2008 final defeat to Manchester United will no doubt still boil the German’s blood after he claimed upon joining the Blues “the Champions League is my object”.

Ballack married Simone Lambe in July 2008 and they have three children together. He reportedly drives around town in a Porsche 911 Turbo.

FACTFILE Name: Michael Ballack Position: Midfielder Club: Chelsea D.O.B: 26/9/1976 Germany Caps: 97 Germany Goals: 42 Germany Debut: v Scotland 28/4/1999 Moment to remember

Despite missing the opening game due to a calf strain, Ballack was included in the 2006 World Cup All-Star Team, although the tournament itself ended in disappointment as the Germans lost out to Italy in the semi-finals.

Moment to forget

A second tournament booking against South Korea in 2002 meant that Ballack missed the World Cup final with Brazil, and Germany went on to lose 2-0 without him.

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