Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who let the Drog out?

There can be no more fearsome sight in football than Didier Yves Drogba Tébily, head bowed, charging down a defender like an enraged stallion. It looked ferocious enough from the East Stand Upper Section at Stamford Bridge, where I sit, so God only knows what it must be like at pitch level with the Ivorian coming at you.

Drogba has been a formidable centre-forward for Chelsea these last eight seasons. Putting aside his ridiculous histrionics, his handbags-aloft huffing, puffing and sudden, life-threatening twinges when games have started to go against him, and, of course, his at-times comical diving talents, there hasn't been a player to wear the No.11 shirt quite like him - at Chelsea or any other team for that matter.

And now he is off, confirming this evening in a statement: "It has been a very difficult decision for me to make and I am very proud of what we have achieved, but the time is right for a new challenge for me."

Saturday night's Champions League triumph has, as expected, lowered the curtain on eight seasons of high-octane entertainment, when part of the fun of watching Chelsea has been wondering which Didier Drogba runs out onto the pitch.

"As a team we have accomplished so much," said Drogba's statement, "and have won every single trophy possible. Saturday was a very special moment for everyone at the club and for all the fans. I am very proud to have played my part in bringing many trophies to this club, which has been my home for the last eight years."

Drogba's statement was intended to hose down speculation - and confusion. Smart money is that he will join former Chelsea teammate Nicolas Anelka at Shanghai Shenhua in China, although his agents were still maintaining yesterday that a deal could be struck with Brer Abramovich and his team of shadowy advisers.

However, if Drogba accepts Zhu Jun's generous bag of silver, he will not only be lining the pockets of his family's future prosperity, but that of his foundation. This institution has become an increasingly important part of Drogba's life as he reaches the early stages of twilight in his playing career (he donated his £3 million endorsement fee for a Pepsi commercial to building a hospital in his hometown Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital).

If Drogba had remained at Chelsea for another season, age should not have been an issue. He is only 34, and injuries not withstanding, in excellent condition. Age has clearly not been a factor in Ryan Giggs' continued timeshare ownership of Manchester United's left flank, either, and he will be 39 in November (as long as he stays out of trouble in the bedroom...). Paul Scholes, exactly 12 months younger, has also proven that old dogs don't always lie around, drooling on the carpet (although the lateness of some of his tackles this season might suggest a certain age-related decline in his mental faculties...).

Wherever Drogba plies his trade next, evidence from the last few weeks has demonstrated that he is far from the knackers yard yet. His potency in front of goal, his love of the big stages - especially Wembley - and his tremendous work rate (when in the right frame of mind) have been exceptional in Chelsea's amazing, unlikely last few weeks, continually showing the sulky Fernando Torres what it's all about.

The Didier Drogba I've enjoyed more than any other at Chelsea has been the Drogba holding up opposition defenders one minute, scoring with a deft twist and a powerful volley, and then popping up as an auxiliary central defender in front of his own goalmouth minutes later. Few critics seem to recognise that side of him, such is their usual rush to leap on his obvious diving tendencies.

My spectacles aren't, though, so blue-tinted that I can ignore the theatrical aspects of Drogba's game. And we've seen as much of that side of him this season as any other: his continual rolling around, like a B-movie actor getting shot every three pages of script, may have successfully disrupted the home leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, but it was bloody annoying to watch.

Not surprisingly, we've let it go, but don't ever think that the mood in the stands is approving. We have regularly screamed ourselves hoarse for the upright Drogba, the Attack Drog and the Guard Drog, to perpetuate the awful back page headline puns. This is Didier - Team Player, the Drogba who, in the Champions League semi-final at Camp Nou was a powerful presence in the nine-man wall Chelsea erected in front of Petr Čech. Although the occasionally necessary forays back into his own penalty area haven't always been helpful (he conceded two penalties in consecutive European games in virtually the same circumstances each time), no one has ever been able to fault his team ethic.

Opposition fans, neutrals and defenders will be glad to see the back of Drogba but for us fans who've endured both the good and the bad of the club for most of our lives, we will be saying farewell to a remarkable workhorse.

We will be saying farewell to a striker who is Chelsea's 4th all-time scorer, ahead, even, of the legendary Peter Osgood - the King of Stamford Bridge. Drogba's 157 goals in all competitions, including more than 100 in the Premier League itself, have been capitalised further by his simply towering personality on the pitch, geeing up the fans when support has been felt to be lacking in a game. Drogba is a showman, and while not in the same league of all-round charisma as Gianfranco Zola or Thierry Henry, he has been - when on form - a player worthy of the entry ticket price alone.

I'm sure, as he leaves, there will be plenty of platitudes from within the club about Drogba having been "Chelsea through and through" (indeed he has said himself: "Chelsea is in my heart. My blood is blue and my heart even more so"), even if, like Patrick Viera, rumours of a departure have surfaced almost every summer since he joined from Marseille in 2004. But whatever loyalty Drogba has been able to summon in his eight seasons at the club, his legacy is assured.

If it hadn't been assured before, the last four weeks have locked it in tight. Drogba's remarkable history at Wembley, with seven goals in finals and semi-finals, has been augmented by that stunner against Tottenham in this season's FA Cup Semi-Final which led to a 5-1 rout. Then, just three days later, he delivered another blessed strike in the home leg of the Barcelona fixture. Back to Wembley again, the winner against Liverpool to win Chelsea the FA Cup itself.

Fittingly, poetically, romantically, even predictably, Drogba was centre-stage again in Chelsea's greatest night, it's greatest triumph.

His injury-time equaliser will go down in club history right up there next to Zola coming off the bench and scoring 20 seconds later to beat Stuttgart in the 1998 European Cup Winners Final. And while we're at it, Dennis Wise's unlikely equaliser in the San Siro against Milan in 1996.

The difference is that the equaliser in Munich on Saturday, just a couple of minutes after the hosts had taken the lead, was classic Drogba: timely, dramatic, game changing.

That he also scored the winning penalty in the inevitable shootout was possibly the work of an overactive Hollywood creative. Even now I'm suspicious of what I saw, but then so much has been an odd whirl since Saturday night, my head amongst them.

Now we know that Champions League Final was Didier Drogba's final game for Chelsea, and that fifth penalty his last kick in a blue shirt. Contrived or not, I'll take that as his sign off and happily walk  away from one of the greatest - and often most infuriating - player to have ever worn the blue shirt.

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