Branislav Ivanovic's presence growing in importance to Chelsea
For a defender, Branislav Ivanovic has a knack for scoring important goals
Ivanovic has the ability to play at right back or center back in equal measure
Ivanovic's humble persona and ability in the air are among his strengths
LONDON -- After Chelsea had beaten Benfica in the Champions League a two weeks ago, Branislav Ivanovic walked past a line of journalists and was asked for a brief chat about the game and the prospect of facing Barcelona in the semifinals. He did not break his stride as he smiled and politely said, "You don't want to talk to me, there are better players who will come soon."
When he caught up with SI.com last week, the first thing I wanted to know is if he meant what he said, or if that's just his standard excuse. "No, no, you misunderstood," he explained. "I meant that there were players who would be better to speak with, as they had more impact on the game, others who deserved it more. But it's true I don't like to be in the press too much, I prefer to stay focused and ready for every game."
If that's the case, this has been a strange period for the shy Serbian. In the last month, he has been one of Chelsea's most decisive players. First, he scored his team's most important goal, arguably, of the season: an extra-time strike that gave it a 5-4 aggregate win in a dramatic Champions League Round of 16 tie against Napoli.
He then scored two more in a 4-2 win at Aston Villa and, against Wigan, scored the opening goal (from an offside position), stopped a goal at the other end with a dramatic volleyed clearance, and was then banned for three matches after he was charged with violent conduct following an incident with Shaun Maloney. The FA rejected his appeal last week.
His absence will be a tough one for Chelsea: Ivanovic has been typically consistent in what he admits has been an eventful campaign. "We are just trying to do everything we can to have a successful season," he said. "The players' reaction to the change of coach [when Andre Villas Boas was sacked in March and replaced by his assistant, Roberto di Matteo] has been very good and now we are starting to believe that we can win some trophies. That's the main thing."
He had played four games in a 10-day spell when news of his ban came through, but shrugged off my suggestion that he might benefit from a rest. "At this stage of the season, we are full of energy, there is huge motivation for every game, as they are all so important. We have long holidays to rest."
Not that long actually: Chelsea recently announced plans for a preseason tour to the USA in mid-July, where they will play the Seattle Sounders and the MLS All-Stars. Ivanovic is looking forward to the trip: "The stadiums are always full and the supporters are very passionate about Chelsea," he said. "I remember from when we were there three years ago the facilities in America are excellent."
Although originally bought as a center back -- he joined Chelsea in January 2008, was injured for his first six months, and only started six games under Luiz Felipe Scolari -- it was the arrival of Guus Hiddink in February 2009 that transformed Ivanovic's Chelsea career. Hiddink picked Ivanovic at right back for Chelsea's 2009 Champions League quarterfinal first leg at Liverpool (only his second game for the club in that position). Ivanovic scored twice as Chelsea won 3-1. "That game definitely changed my career," he remembered. "My priority is always the defensive job and I want to do that properly, but of course it's always great to score."
He had played right-back before: at his former club Lokomotiv Moscow in 2006, he was picked in the Russian league's Team of the Year (as he was in the Barclays Premier League Team of the Year after Chelsea won the 2010 league and FA Cup double in Carlo Ancelotti's first season).
After that Liverpool tie (Chelsea went through after a crazy 4-4 draw in the second leg), Ivanovic started the first leg of Chelsea's semifinal against Barcelona, again at right back. He kept Thierry Henry quiet in a goalless draw, but dropped to the bench for the controversial second leg, in which Andres Iniesta's late equalizer eliminated Chelsea on away goals.
"We remember the last game well, but while most of the Barcelona team is the same, of their three forwards, Messi is the only one still there," he added. "Henry and Eto'o have left, so there will be two new players for us to deal with. Barcelona have a great squad, they are the most attacking football team around, they score a lot of goals and will be up to us to try to stop them.
"We have to prepare for the game well, we know where they are good in attack so we have to stop that as much as possible, and either from our own counterattacks, or by pressuring the midfield line to get at them, make it count. We know what we have to do and showed against Napoli that we can play like a team. It's going to be a big test."
The other weakness Barcelona has is in the air, and with Ivanovic a huge threat from set pieces, this could be another big week for the 28-year-old Serbian -- especially with his habit of scoring in important games.
When Ivanovic scored an 86th-minute winner in Serbia & Montenegro's 3-2 win over Croatia in the U-21 European Championships (S&M reached the final only to lose to Daniele de Rossi's Italy) back in 2004, his coach at the time was Branko Babic, at OFK Belgrade. "In general, when I am putting together a team, I look closely at the player's personality and I never had a doubt about Ivanovic: he is a true professional," Babic told Serbian newspaper Sport. "He comes from Srema, an area in Vojvodina, in the north. People from there are very quiet and self-effacing and he personifies all those positive features. And he's magnificent in the air!" Two current Serbian international center backs also began their careers under Babic at OFK: Marko Basa (Lille) and Slobodan Rajkovic (Hamburg).
Important goals are a feature of Ivanovic's career: in 2006, at Lokomotiv, his late winner against CSKA Moscow cost it the league title; his goals against France, Romania and Lithuania helped Serbia qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals; and for Chelsea, those dramatic European efforts against Liverpool in 2009, and Napoli last month.
As former Serbia coach Raddy Antic put it: "If we are chasing a goal, I just tell Ivanovic to get up there, and the players bang the crosses in toward him, and it always works."
The problem with that plan is that if he does end up scoring a winner for Chelsea against Barcelona, Ivanovic might have to do lots more interviews. "It's all right sometimes," he laughed. "It's just to talk every time, after every game, that's not for me."
Ben Lyttleton writes about European football for publications in Europe, North and South America and Asia. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.