With one kick Lampard showed a new spirit

Frank Lampard, like the Schumachers before him, dealt with his grief head on.

As Frank Lampard prepared to take his penalty kick in the eighth minute of extra-time during the Champions League 2nd leg semifinal on April 30, a whole new chapter in the history of his club waited to be written. As if that were not enough, Chelsea’s No. 8 was also steeling himself to overcome the personal tragedy that had shadowed him for a week.

His success will have made some of us look at him in a different light. It may even change the man himself. It was a moment when he reached deep into himself and found the best and purest response. It was extraordinarily impressive and extremely moving.

The death of a beloved parent is not something to be got over. You learn to live with it, to make an accommodation with the permanent absence of a person who succoured and nurtured you from the day you were born. As he watched the ball hit the back of the net, running back with his face contorted in an extraordinary mix of emotions while clutching a black armband in his right fist, Lampard was in the early stages of comprehending that sense of profound and irrecoverable loss. And his way of dealing with it was to reassert his ability to do the job that has defined his life.

He had looked pale and drawn when he took the pitch for the start of the game. Thinner, too. The grief seemed to have taken a physical toll. A player often derided by opposing fans for a tendency to put on weight was now as slender as a blade.

In sport at the top level, we have seen a homologous moment just once in recent years. Back in 2003 the Schumacher brothers arrived at Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix knowing that their mother was gravely ill. She had lapsed into a coma after suffering severe internal bleeding, and no one would have raised an eyebrow had they decided to take the weekend off in order to stay by her side. Instead, Michael and Ralf chose to carry on with their work, and on the Saturday afternoon the brothers ended up with the two fastest times of the day, thus ensuring that they would share the front row of the grid. That night they flew to Cologne, where they paid their last respects to the woman who, with her husband, had set the boys on their path to success. By the time they lined up for the start on Sunday afternoon, she was dead. Michael, with a black band around the arm of his racing suit, produced perhaps the most implacable performance of his career. Nothing could have held him back that day. The applause as he stood silent on the podium, head bowed, was warm for a man whose exploits had not always attracted such a sympathetic response.

Ditto Lampard that Wednesday, in the hearts of all neutrals watching in their homes. They had seen him give a performance that, for sheer competitive relevance, can seldom have been bettered in his entire career.

After a quiet start to the evening, he illuminated the remainder of the first half with three glorious passes, each setting an attacker running down the left flank: two to Didier Drogba and one to Salomon Kalou. From the last of them, Kalou’s shot created the opening from which Drogba gave Chelsea the lead.

Like the rest of the team, Lampard went a little flat in the second half while Liverpool were mounting their answering offensive. But he roused himself for the final stages, and converted the penalty with such skill and sangfroid that Fabio Capello will be wondering whether, at long last, his talent can be fully exploited on the international stage.

His 30th birthday, which is on midsummer’s day, will necessarily be a bitter-sweet affair. By that time, too, he will know what the future holds. He may be staying at Chelsea, with a lucrative new contract, or he could be about to fulfil a long-held ambition to play for one of the big clubs in Italy or Spain, perhaps having listened to the siren call of Jose Mourinho and followed his old boss to Barcelona or Internazionale. Whatever happens next, life will be different. And in the couple of seconds it took to send that penalty hard and low into the corner of the Liverpool net, he may even have redefined himself in his own eyes, as well as in those of others formerly sceptical of his qualities.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008