London: When Ramires steps on to the Stamford Bridge pitch in front of 42,000 roaring fans he looks rather like somebody’s little brother invited to play football with the big boys as a special treat.
But once the game starts, the slight, 64-kilogram (140-pound) Brazil midfielder becomes a big player in Chelsea’s midfield, a fleet-footed, box-to-box runner with remarkable endurance, jinking ball skills and an eye for goal.
Such attributes make him a first pick for Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas, nudging aside the formerly ever-present Frank Lampard as the midfielder with the most minutes on the pitch.
“I think perhaps my speed, my lungs, and my staying power make the difference between me and other players,” the softly spoken Ramires says.
“Everyone else starts to get tired at 90 minutes but I’m still running.”
Born in Rio de Janeiro, the boyish Ramires was dubbed the Blue Kenyan, because he played in the blue of Cruzeiro and had the endurance of a long-distance runner.
The British press has made much recently of Lampard’s dissatisfaction at being left on the bench while Villas-Boas favors Ramires, in only his second season at the club, or the coach’s Portuguese compatriot Raul Meireles, who arrived last summer when Villas-Boas replaced Carlo Ancelotti.
In truth, the pair often appear together. Lampard has scored 11 goals to Ramires’ eight, but two of the Englishman’s have been penalties. The duo also share a strongly developed work ethic, team spirit, resistance to injury and international profile.
But the significant difference between them is age. Ramires is an up-and-coming 24 with his best years ahead. Lampard is 33.
The Brazilian recognizes that Chelsea is in a period of change but that, even in transition, expectations are high at the club, which won three championships from 2005-10 under Jose Mourinho and Ancelotti.
“The minimum we must get is one trophy,” he said. “I’d like to win the Champions League because Chelsea has not won it. Obviously also the Premier League. When you are in a club you want to win the national championship like I did at Benfica,” he said. Ramires spent a season at the Lisbon club after Cruzeiro.
“We have the players to win the Champions League. I honestly think we can win it,” he said. Chelsea face Napoli in the last 16.
With Chelsea languishing in an unaccustomed fourth place in the league, well behind leaders Manchester City, the 34-year-old Villas-Boas’ coaching methods have earned a mixed reception.
Ramires rates Villas-Boas, however, as the man to change the London side’s continental fortunes because of both his man-management style and his attacking mindset.
The coach’s preference for a 4-3-3 system with a high defensive line also suits the Brazilian who has been given more freedom to roam and push forward. In recent games he has played in front on the right, netting three goals after confounding defenses with devastating bursts of speed.
“I like this formation because you put more pressure on the opponent and give them less breathing space,” Ramires said.
“With Ancelotti I had to keep in line. I couldn’t run forward as much. Now I have the responsibility to score.”
Ramires’ target is at least 15 goals this season. Lampard, third in Chelsea’s list of all-time top scorers with 181, has regularly put away 20 a season.
British newspapers have highlighted alleged divisions in the camp between the old guard who knew Villas-Boas as Mourinho’s youthful scout at the club before he won the Europa League as Porto coach, and the big group of Portuguese and Spanish-speaking youngsters such as Juan Mata, David Luiz and Meireles.
“I suppose my friends are the Portuguese-speaking players. It’s natural. But I play and joke with everybody,” Ramires said. “The important thing is to be open and enjoy company. I don’t see any divisions.”
Ramires is sheepish when talk turns to his own English. He confesses he stopped lessons last May—“Too busy”—but has started again this month and promised with a wide grin that he would be submitting to television interviews in English by the end of the season.
Otherwise he has adapted well—even to the weather. He betrays his Brazilian roots by wearing gloves during winter matches but is perfectly at ease with the physical nature of the English game, never shirking a tackle and riding challenges, his slim form belying a wiry strength.
“In Brazil there’s more space and bigger pitches so the games tend to be slower,” he said, adding that Portugal was faster but teams played a waiting game, with more emphasis on counterattack.
“What differentiates the English game is that home and away it’s blow for blow with physical force counting a lot. All games are tough. The pitches are smaller so you’ve less time to think. You have to react quickly and move quickly. You have to adapt, but that’s cool.”
What gives him the greatest pleasure, though is what he describes as the English passion for the game, with its sellout crowds.
“It’s great to go out on to the pitch with a big crowd all expectant. You want to put on a good show for them, a good performance, you want to play well. Personally it’s a big motivation, hearing the crowd at home willing you on. It’s a great boost.”