Byline: SCOTT MINTO
THERE'S no doubting that Michael Essien has not been as influential toChelsea's cause this season in the way he was in the last campaign yet he seemsto be returning to his best form at just the right time.
With Avram Grant's team likely to have to face Manchester United tomorrowwithout Frank Lampardwho is so sadly having to cope with the death of his motherthe manager is going to need Essien's drive and commitment if he is to continuechasing a Champions League and Premier League double.
Despite Didier Drogba's 33 goals last year, the Ghanaian won the supporters'player of the year, and he did it playing in a number of different positions.
This season most of his appearances have been in his favoured midfield slot,yet for the first half of the season and, even after returning from the AfricanCup of Nations, he couldn't make the impact he wanted.
For the recent crunch games, namely against Arsenal and Fenerbachehome and awayhe has been asked to play at right back. Many players will trot out the usual"I'm just happy to be in the team", but he will have been upset that he wasn'tput in his best position and competing in the thick of the action.
Grant is lucky in that he is blessed with so many superb midfielders. As wellas Essien and Lampard, he has to try and accommodate Michael Ballack, ClaudeMakelele, John Obi Mikel and there is never any room for Steve Sidwell, who wasone of the main reasons behind Reading's success last season.
Since that 2-1 victory over Arsenal on Easter Sunday, Essien has excelledagainst Middlesbrough, forced Richard Dunne into scoring an own goal atManchester City, and then netted himself against both Wigan and Everton, allfrom central midfield.
He was definitely missed at Anfield on Tuesday where the central battle was wonby Liverpool, for whom Javier Mascherano was outstanding. The irony is that ifhe had not been suspended for the Champions League semi-final, second leg Grantwould have picked him at right-back anyway as he wanted to play Ballack andLampard with Makelele in a holding role.
Now, with Lampard so unfortunate to miss out, Essien can slot straight backinto the middle.
Mascherano and Xavi Alonso were able to repell Chelsea's midfield at Anfieldbecause their job was to fill the space in front of the back four.
Tomorrow, I have no doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson will do the same with MichaelCarrick and Owen Hargreaves..
United are likely to start with a five-man midfield and the return of NemanjaVidic to central defence will allow Hargreavesanother player who has suffered this season because of his versatilityto move into the middle.
Then with either Paul Scholes or the very impressive Anderson supporting WayneRooney in attack, Ferguson's side will be very difficult to break down.
United are not playing particularly well but they are not conceding many goals.Their display in Barcelona was a masterclass in defendingyet the Spaniards failed to press Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown into any kind ofpanic measures because their midfielders seemed to be under orders not to breakbeyond their front three. …