Malouda shows benefit of a Breton education

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The Independent Football

First impressions can be deceptive, and for most of the last two seasons that looked to be the case with Florent Malouda. Twenty-two months ago, in this stadium, the French winger made his Chelsea debut in the Community Shield against Manchester United. Signed from Lyon for £13.5 million much was expected and, that day, he delivered muscling past Rio Ferdinand to score Chelsea's equaliser. He looked a decent signing, one with the strength to succeed in the English game as well as the talent.

For a long time that, though, was the highpoint of his Chelsea career. Managers came and went but all eventually dropped Malouda. His only prominent appearances were in newspapers' regular lists of Chelsea players who were to be "cleared out" this summer. Then, in April, Guus Hiddink recalled him and, finally, the 28-year-old blossomed.

"Malouda is one of the players who has reacted the way I like to see," Hiddink said yesterday. "In the first weeks here I tried to observe the players and make a judgement about what a player could bring to the team, compared to what he was bringing. I convinced Malouda he could bring more than sometimes he showed. After a few weeks he started playing very regularly to a high level and took on a lot of responsibility."

Malouda admitted he had been reticent before Hiddink's arrival. "He has given me more responsibilities," said Malouda. "That's what I had at Lyon. When you come to a big club like Chelsea you have to wait to get some experience and then take your responsibilities." Malouda added that, after several niggling injuries, he is finally enjoying the benefit of feeling fit and playing regularly. "The more I play, the better I am."

In recent weeks he has been in vibrant form and he went in to yesterday's final brimming with confidence. It showed in the way he turned Tony Hibbert's Big Day Out into a nightmare, torturing the full-back in the heat to the extent David Moyes felt duty bound to withdraw the club's longest- serving player at half-time.

Malouda continued, however, to provide Chelsea's most potent attacking threat coming close to crowning his performance with the 30-yard drive which crashed against the bar, then looked to have bounced down behind the line before spinning clear.

With that "goal" not being registered Malouda's most telling intervention remained the cross which Didier Drogba powered past Tim Howard to level Louis Saha's astonishingly early strike. While Malouda was not put under any pressure by the Everton defence, who unforgivably left him unmarked in the build-up to the goal, it was still an excellent cross, hit with pace and curling away from Howard.

If it seemed that Drogba knew where and when the ball would be coming in that is because he did. His fourth goal in as many Wembley appearances was made many years ago, in very different arena, the Stade du Roudourou in Brittany.

Drogba and Malouda go way back, back to early 2002 when the Ivorian arrived at in the small Breton town of Guingamp to play for the local club. Already playing on the wing was Malouda. In the 2002-03 season the pair struck up a superb understanding, Malouda laying on a series of goals for Drogba as the late-developing striker's latent potential began to be realised.

"I built a fantastic relationship with Florent. His service was a big factor in my success," said Drogba. Guingamp achieved a best ever finish of seventh, Drogba's 17 goals earned him a transfer to Marseille, and Malouda signed for Lyon.

It is no co-incidence that Drogba's form has picked up the same time as Malouda's. "Flo and me have a history together," said Drogba. "We have spent a lot of time together on the pitch, and automatically we create an understanding. It's easy then to perform and win matches."

Malouda said: "We've known each other a long time and you don't have to look, you know where he is going to move."

Maybe their triumph was fated. This month Guingamp, now in Ligue 2, beat Rennes to lift the French Cup, the first team from outside the top flight to do so in half-a-century. Like Chelsea Guingamp won 2-1 having conceded first.

Louis the first

Saha's lightning-fast goal yesterday put him top of the charts in FA Cup final history:

1. (25 seconds): Louis Saha, for Everton v Chelsea, 2009

2. (30 seconds): Bob Chatt for Aston Villa v West Bromwich, 1895.

3. (42 seconds): Roberto Di Matteo for Chelsea v Middlesbrough, 1997.