Drogba revels in new stature at Chelsea

Goals give a player authority. With his commanding drive that delivered a 1-0 win over Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, Didier Drogba played like a leader of the Chelsea team and also spoke like one afterwards. At present he has a higher status than at any point since he moved to England two years ago.
The Ivorian knows that he has not so much hit a new peak as belatedly rediscovered his old self.

Asked if he had ever been in better form, he was too thoughtful merely to bask in the implied praise. “Yes,” he said. “When I was at Marseille.”

It was an accurate answer. British viewers saw at least as much verve as strength when he scored the goals for the French club that eliminated Newcastle United from the Uefa Cup in the 2004 semifinal. The whirl and whack with which he produced the winner for Chelsea against Liverpool last month inspired awe and disbelief, but Marseille fans remember him pulling off that feat on a couple of occasions.

If anything, there has been a delay in showing off this knack for the idiosyncratically spectacular. For too long he was a human battering ram at Chelsea. The games were fiercer and more frequent than he had ever known and the strains were accentuated because, at that time, he was the lone centre-forward in the 4-3-3 that Jose Mourinho habitually used.

Frustration made him consider leaving Chelsea and that thought continues to lurk somewhere in his mind. Talks over an extension to a contract that ends in 2008 petered out in the off-season.

In the short term, he revels in having a partner in attack for every game, even if Andriy Shevchenko, the player in question, is suffering from a wayward touch and sluggishness. No one predicted that the Ukrainian would be in need of a show of faith from Drogba. It is as if Shevchenko is sidekick to a senior partner.

“Everybody has to be patient with him,” Drogba pleaded. “You can’t change countries like he has and expect to adapt as easily as people want. I know that myself. He was used to playing in a certain way in Italy, with a team he knew and in a style of football that was familiar. But it is very different here in England. We know he is a great goal scorer and he will be a great goal scorer for us. We must just give him time.”

Drogba, however, may wish to ensure that his own days at Chelsea are numbered. Whatever loyalty he feels for the club, it is not dumb loyalty judging by his interview in L’Equipe recently.

There was bitterness at Stamford Bridge when William Gallas forced his way out to join Arsenal and accusations followed that he had threatened to score an own-goal if the club refused to let him leave. Although Drogba did not address that allegation, he chose, so far as Chelsea are concerned, to go completely off-message.

“He stayed true to his values,” said Drogba. “What I remember is that he gave 100% of himself from the first minute with Chelsea until the last. William is someone for whom I have the greatest respect.”

These are not opinions commonly aired within earshot of Mourinho, and the forward’s independent streak suggests that he has a move in mind sooner or later. The notion persists that he will ultimately be bought by Lyon.

Of the first game against Barcelona, Drogba said: “It was our best performance of the season so far, and that was probably because we wanted to win it so much for [injured goalkeeper] Petr Cech. We had a heavy anger in our hearts and took that on to the pitch with us after what happened at Reading. What was important was that it was a controlled anger.”

Drogba may have dreaded being on the fringes when Shevchenko was bought. As it is, nine goals this season have put him at the very heart of Chelsea’s ambitions.—Â

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