Drogba proves he's not over the hill
Didider Drogba's contract at Chelsea expires at the end of the season
Previous manager Andre Villas-Boas believed Drogba was past his prime
Drogba's performances recently prove he's still a man for the big occasion
Didier Drogba will be out of contract at Chelsea in 10 weeks' time. Under Andre Villas-Boas, the plan was to leave it that way. Even now, with the future kept at arm's length, the club has offered only a one-year deal that Drogba has refused for being too short. Back in December, bookmakers had Russia as his most likely destination because, as The Mirror put it, "megabucks Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala are spending money like it's going out of fashion... and specialize in buying over-the-hill players." It is not just the odds that need some revision after six days in which Drogba's continuing value has been boldly underscored.
In two successive matches -- matches that many speculated he was too old, at 34, even to play in the space of three days -- Chelsea has been under the cosh yet reached the interval in the lead thanks to Drogba. A goal-line clearance and the post kept Tottenham Hotspur from scoring first at Wembley last weekend; three minutes later Drogba collected a punt from the back and overpowered William Gallas. The jury is out on whether the playacting that characterized much of the striker's first half against Barcelona was tactically intelligent or plain embarrassing, but the goal returned a unanimous verdict: Drogba is still a player for the big occasions.
"BARC ARE WORSE THAN DROG BITE" punned The Mirror, conceding that there was "life in the old Drog yet." Ahead of the game Cesc Fabregas' suggestion that Chelsea had returned to its former counterattacking game under Roberto di Matteo was taken as faint praise. He might have known what headline writers would do with mention of a long-ball game, but the full interview showed that he had correctly identified Drogba (who scored seven goals in 21 appearances for Villas-Boas, and has four in nine since the Portuguese was sacked) as a particular danger in that kind of system.
Such is the strength of Pep Guardiola's side that it generally presents opponents with two choices: leave your pride at the door and focus first on stopping us; or play your own game and, like Manchester United, leave your dignity somewhere along the way. Drogba allowed Chelsea to take the first option without surrendering its own threat. His goal was Chelsea's only strike on target during a game in which Petr Cech's penalty area was peppered with shots from start to finish.
It came after Frank Lampard dispossessed Lionel Messi of the ball and of the notion that the entire game would be contested 20 yards from Cech's goal line; Drogba floated away from Carlos Puyol as Ramires charged down the left and jabbed home the cross from six yards out. Though he was incredibly isolated, Drogba moved Puyol and Javier Mascherano, preferred to Gerard Pique, about relentlessly -- beating each to a long ball dropped over by the Chelsea defense inside the opening seven or eight minutes.
The goal was virtually the final kick of the first half, and Drogba retreated into the midfield for much of the second. At times a strip of turf 10 yards wide must have been enough to contain every outfield Chelsea player. By the end of 90 minutes the stats yelled a tale of frustration and woe for Barcelona; still, how difficult it was not to admire the resistance that Chelsea put up. Barcelona hit the woodwork twice yet it felt, somehow, that the Londoners had executed their game plan perfectly.
A strange season, this, at Stamford Bridge. Quickly outstripped by the title contenders, constantly fending off speculation about unrest behind the scenes, Chelsea have made a hash of transition, clinging to the familiar like a pubescent teen being tucked in with a favorite teddy bear. Without any certainty as to what the new will be, ushering out the old is terrifying. Especially when the old turn in the consummate Chelsea performance, and more than once; Di Matteo's side will now contest the FA Cup final with Liverpool, and leads a Champions League semifinal. It is a slender, precarious advantage that Barcelona will be confident of overhauling on home soil, but still.
"Public opinion has been that some of these boys are over the hill, too old to play two games in a short space of time, to play at this level," the interim manager reminded everybody in the wake of Wednesday's victory. "They gave an answer on the pitch." He spoke not just of Drogba. Lampard, the player whose brooding on the bench came almost to define Villas-Boas' months in charge, was hugely influential, as were Ashley Cole and John Terry. "We didn't touch the ball in the first 10 or 15 minutes and we had to work very hard," Terry said. "Didi was incredible up there against some of the best in the world on his own."
Whether or not Drogba can perform that way each and every week, when the stakes are not so great, remains a matter for debate. Regardless of the frequency with which we can really expect to see such performances, however, his agent is increasingly confident that the club will recognize the value of ensuring that Drogba sees out the remaining years of his playing career at Stamford Bridge. "I believe what Didier is currently showing will lead the club to think again," Thierno Seidy said to L'Equipe. "Didier loves Chelsea and he wants to stay."
"If things have to happen another way," he warned, though, "he will leave." Seidy says that he has had a lot of offers but that Drogba will not move to another English club. Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua, where Drogba's former teammate Nicolas Anelka is reportedly offering $10 million a year for two years, could be the one to benefit if whoever is in charge in west London this summer decides that two years is too much. Drogba, like this "old-fashioned" Chelsea, is rarely more dangerous than when a point needs proving.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-author of Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.
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