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Ballack getting back to his best

  • Story Highlights
  • German captain Michael Ballack returns for his country in a 3-0 win over Austria
  • Ballack crosses for Miroslav Klose to score; adds gloss to German performance
  • Chelsea midfielder also playing well for his club after struggling since 2006 move
  • Ballack won three league and cup doubles in four seasons at Bayern Munich
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By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Germany's 3-0 win over Austria in Vienna on Wednesday probably told us more about the Euro 2008 co-hosts' weaknesses than the visitors' strengths, but the biggest positive of the night for German coach Joachim Loew was the return of national captain Michael Ballack after an 11-month injury-stricken absence.

Michael Ballack returned for Germany in Wednesday's 3-0 win over Austria.

Increasingly influential as he directed the play from midfield, Ballack provided the cross for Miroslav Klose to score the second goal of the game and generally added gloss to an otherwise unpolished German performance.

"We are overjoyed to have Michael back to full health and returned to our team after a very long break," Loew said afterwards. "He showed why he is an important part of our plans for Euro 2008."

Ballack has been one Europe's outstanding midfielders for most of the past seven years since starring in Bayer Leverkusen's memorable charge to the Champions League final in 2002 and Germany's unexpected run to the World Cup final in the same year.

Yet the East German-born 31-year-old's reputation has been in freefall since he left Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich for English side Chelsea in 2006.

In truth, Ballack had not looked fully fit even during that summer's World Cup in which an unfancied German side had raised their game on home soil to finish in third place.

At Chelsea, the suggestion was that the momentum behind his transfer had come from the club hierarchy loyal to owner Roman Abramovich, rather than from then-coach Jose Mourinho who already had Frank Lampard and Michael Essien at his disposal in an overcrowded midfield.

Failing to settle and used increasingly sparingly, Ballack cut a disconsolate figure on the Chelsea bench as the club's behind-the-scenes divisions contributed to the Londoners' loss of their English Premier League title, ultimately leading to Mourinho's dismissal earlier this season.

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Conversely however, Ballack has also been the biggest beneficiary of the new Avram Grant regime at Stamford Bridge. Tipped for a move to Real Madrid in the summer while still recovering from ankle surgery at the end of last season, Ballack instead has thrived under the Israeli's guidance, putting in his best performances in a blue shirt amid Chelsea's quiet re-emergence as title contenders.

"I've known Ballack for a long time. I went to see him train when he was at Bayern Munich, so I knew what he could do," Grant says of getting the best out of Ballack.

"He is an intelligent player and now we try to play intelligent football and to pass the ball. That has made it much easier for him to play well."

With two goals in the past seven games, it has not gone unremarked however that Ballack's return to form and favor has coincided with Frank Lampard's lengthy absence due to injury as well as Michael Essien's sojourn with Ghana at the African Nations Cup.

The issue of who plays best with whom remains to be solved, but Ballack insists the idea that he are Lampard are incompatible has been blown out of proportion.

"Good players can always play together and Frank is a good player," he says.

With Chelsea still chasing honors on four fronts -- Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup -- Ballack, meanwhile, says he is focused on adding to the haul of silverware he won at Bayern Munich, including three league and cup doubles in four seasons.

Beyond that, if Ballack can maintain his current form until June, Germany could yet be a team worth watching at Euro 2008. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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