Like most British football fans, I first encountered Didier Drogba after his explosive hat-trick for Marseille against Partizan in 2003. And, again like most British fans, I watched in annoyance as he arrived at Stamford Bridge and apparently took on the personality of a 9-year-old child.
I marveled at his goals, but wondered how a man built like a horse could be brought down more easily than a newborn lamb. And I watched, slightly freaked out, as he screamed at the referee and then down the camera, eyes bulging out of his skull, after Barcelona's tempestuous win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2009.
Drogba later said it was after that game that he began to change. He recounted in an interview that his young son had criticised him for his crazed reaction. The football world has Isaac Drogba to thank for what followed. He hit 37 goals in 41 games the following season and notched up 11 assists as Chelsea won back the title. And he had a noticeable change of demeanor. Drogba began helping players to their feet, stopped arguing so much with referees and began to take more advantage of his considerable frame. Over time, this has become even more pronounced. Lazy observers will see him go down under a challenge easily once and remark "same old Drogba", but anyone paying attention will have spotted the change.
Think of the difference between the way he responded to being dropped by Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2008/09, and the way he responded to being dropped by Andre Villas-Boas this season. Under Scolari, Drogba became credited as one of the players who forced the faultering manager out. Under AVB, Drogba came into the team when called upon and performed brilliantly. 11 goals in 23 games doesn't get near to emphasising his overall impact on the team. Often unfairly on the bench behind an impotent Fernando Torres, he has clearly matured, stepping up when needed.
And at no point has that been more striking than over the course of Chelsea's heroic ambush of Barcelona.
Smash and grab it may have been, but the Blues' triumph was the greatest achievement by an English club in Europe since Manchester United overcame a 2-0 (and 3-1 aggregate) scoreline in 75 minutes at the Stadio delle Apli against Juventus in 1999. In the first leg of that tie, United performed their own opportunistic feat, nicking a late equaliser at Old Trafford. And in the second leg, after going 2-0 down, they fought back to win the match 3-2 and the tie 4-3. Roy Keane was the hero of that second leg. Famously booked and ruled out of an increasingly unlikely United team for the Final, Keane reacted in a fashion that will go down in the annals of United history, grabbing the first goal in response before, in Sir Alex Ferguson's words, "Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose."
Drogba's performance over the two legs of this tie was up there with Keane's heroics.
In the first leg, to much criticism, he used his nuisance tactics to break up play, run down the clock and annoy his opponents. Not diving like the Drogba of old, but milking the odd foul, staying down to give his team-mates a breather and using his strength to bully the Barca back line and hold up the ball. It wasn't pretty, and it would have been no fun for Drogba. Being a lone striker against a team that commands 70% of the possession is something I wouldn't wish on anyone. For 90 minutes, Drogba performed dark artistry of the highest order, and with the one chance he got, he scored. It wasn't "same old Drogba," it was perfect tactics.
During the match, Wayne Rooney tweeted, "Drogba. Your a good player but pls get up." The English still haven't developed the tactical smartness needed to win against the odds.
And in the second leg, he performed for the team in a very different way. He was winning the ball high up the field, holding it up, and taking the pressure of the defence as normal. But after his captain got sent off for an act of petulance and lunacy, Drogba dropped and filled in at full back - on both sides - whilst still getting up front when needed.
The defining moment of his performance came when he was one-on-one at right back, defending against Alexis Sanchez. Drogba stood up and as the Barca attacker tried to wriggle away from him he stole the ball. He proceeded to sprint away and as Carlos Puyol came to make a tackle, Drogba poked it passed him and ran onto it. Then, from around about the halfway line, he hammered a shot toward goal that skipped off the turf and forced Victor Valdes into a save. It was the only shot on target that Chelsea had over the 2 legs that didn't result in a goal.
Reports have been linking Drogba to a sunset transfer to China. It would be a huge loss to British football. On current form, he has a lot more to give and I personally want to be able to enjoy watching it. Dark arts 'n' all.
Add a Comment