Drogba's reborn mojo puts menace into Chelsea
Chelsea 2 Arsenal 1
Monday 20 April 2009
In the labyrinthine depths of Wembley Stadium on Saturday night, an hour after the final whistle, John Terry was invited to assess the impact of Chelsea's match-winning striker Didier Drogba.
"When Didier plays like that for me he is unplayable," the Chelsea captain answered. Few who witnessed Drogba's virtuoso goal with six minutes remaining to claim the club's place in the FA Cup final would argue with Terry's succinct verdict.
The way the Ivorian brushed aside the challenge of Mikaël Silvestre, rounded the ill-judged lunge of the rookie goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and then confidently fired the ball into the goal suggested a player at the peak of his formidable powers.
Here was Drogba at his snarling best once more, the player he was under Jose Mourinho. Since "the Special One's" departure 19 months ago, Drogba has floundered. He fell out with Morinho's successors, Avram Grant and Luiz Felipe Scolari, who proved unable to cope with the biggest prima donna of all the Stamford Bridge egos.
Yet with the arrival of temporary manager Guus Hiddink, Drogba has returned the toys to the pram and in doing so has rediscovered the player he used to be, with nine goals in 12 games since the Dutchman took charge. "I feel stronger now than I have felt for the past two or three years," Drogba said. "Everybody talks about the change of manager, but the only thing I want to talk about is that I wasn't playing.
"So I couldn't score goals because I wasn't playing," he added. "The only thing I could do was work, be patient and come back. It was difficult, but the players all showed me a lot of respect, a lot of support."
Hiddink has realised something that was beyond Grant and Scolari, that getting the best out of Drogba is one of the keys to success at Stamford Bridge. Hiddink is not a man to pander to Drogba's overblown ego, as Mourinho did in his handling of Chelsea's temperamental talisman. Nor is he a man to shy away from confrontation, as demonstrated when he sent Edgar Davids home from the Netherlands squad at Euro '96.
But you could not ask for a clearer demonstration of his managerial ability than his handling of Drogba. Somehow he has cajoled the striker to rediscover his mojo and, what is more, for the moment at least there is no sign of the preposterous diving that has afflicted Drogba in past seasons.
He makes the game wonderfully simple for Chelsea. They can pass it long or short; hit it to feet or over the top, and the muscleman will do the rest. The excellent Frank Lampard supplied the platform for him to perform, and Arsenal could do little to prevent the inevitable.
Hiddink revealed that Drogba's rejuvenated presence has been felt off the pitch as well. The Chelsea manager said: "When you have to play him it hurts, it hurts. He's physically very strong, he's very brave because he's going into the duels not knowing what's happening behind his back.
"He's also one who is saying in the locker room, 'Hey guys, this is the moment we have to deliver,' and he is giving the example to be very brave. We don't demand every game one goal but he's so sharp at the moment."
Drogba's powerful display was in total contrast to the nervous hesitancy of Fabianski. It was his 24th birthday but he seemed intent on handing out the presents. The young Pole dashed off his line early in the match only to be caught out by the ball's high bounce. Drogba headed goalwards but Kieran Gibbs cleared off the line.
Theo Walcott put Arsenal ahead after 18 minutes, when his deflected shot beat Chelsea's own floundering goalkeeper Petr Cech. The goal served only to stir the hornets' nest, sparking Chelsea to raise their game by several notches.
Florent Malouda capitalised on Fabianski's lack of positioning to beat the Arsenal keeper at his near post to draw Chelsea level 12 minutes before the half-time interval. Chelsea continued to dominate in key areas. Nicolas Anelka hit the post, and Silvestre was fortunate to get away with a clear handball in the penalty area. In the end another slip from Fabianski led to Drogba's winning goal. The keeper dashed from his penalty area but failed to make contact with either ball or man and Drogba was able to score from a tight angle.
Arsène Wenger attempted to rebuild the keeper's shattered confidence before tomorrow's trip to Liverpool with an over-the-top assessment. "I firmly believe he will be one of the greatest keepers in the world because he has the talent, he's intelligent, brave and very good technically," the Arsenal manager said. "He was not at his best today and you have to accept that can happen to anyone." Wenger also recognised that Drogba's influence made the difference. "He is a killer in his head," Wenger said.
The final whistle prompted an outbreak of champagne spraying by Chelsea players. Drogba gleefully grabbed a bottle and aimed it at Hiddink. One glance of disapproval from the manager, however, was enough for the Chelsea striker swiftly to change his mind and his target. Drogba recognises this is one manager he does not want to upset.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Alex, Terry, A Cole; Ballack, Essien, Lampard; Anelka (Kalou, 82), Drogba, Malouda. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Carvalho, Di Santo, Mikel, Belletti, Mancienne
Arsenal (4-4-2): Fabianski; Eboué, Touré, Silvestre, Gibbs; Walcott, Fabregas, Denilson (Nasri, 86), Diaby; Van Persie (Arshavin, 75), Adebayor (Bendtner, 83). Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Vela, Ramsey, Song.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Chelsea Ivanovic, Ballack, Drogba; Arsenal Denilson, Touré.
Man of the match: Drogba.
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