How 'Roman's idea' became a stroke of genius

Ivanovic made a shaky start at Chelsea, writes Sam Wallace, but he's stealing the show at just the right time for Guus Hiddink

When Chelsea finally got shot of Andrei Shevchenko to Milan last summer, the Italians also offered £8m for Branislav Ivanovic. That a club that was as strapped for transfer funds as Chelsea turned down the offer demonstrated just how much someone at Stamford Bridge rated the Serbian international.

That someone was not the former manager Avram Grant, for whom Ivanovic never played; rather it seems that the man who joined Chelsea from Lokomotiv Moscow had a more influential sponsor. When Ivanovic, 25, arrived in January last year, a mysterious transfer-window signing, he was referred to at the club as "Roman's idea"; it was just a pity that Roman Abramovich was not at Anfield on Wednesday night to see just what a good idea it turned out to be.

Ivanovic's two goals against Liverpool in the Champions League are by far his most significant contribution at the club. His life there began in the least promising circumstances. Signed for £8m as cover for John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, he turned out to be so far off the requisite fitness levels that he did not make his debut in the first team until September.

Nevertheless, Ivanovic – known at Chelsea as "Branna" under John Terry's rigorous nickname policy – has suddenly proven himself to be a crucial part of the Guus Hiddink renaissance. Ivanovic was encour-aged by Scolari, for whom he played 14 games, but Hiddink has chosen to sideline him until now. Wednesday was just his second appearance under the Dutch coach – he played at right-back as a replacement for Jose Bosingwa and it is hard to imagine the Portuguese international contributing in quite such style.

Frank Lampard said after Wednesday's game that Ivanovic was already regarded as one of Chelsea's most effective players at set-pieces. "He is fantastic in the air when he is attacking the ball," Lampard said. "He's probably the strongest player in our team. If you touch him he's like a rock and the way he attacked the ball for the goals, especially the second one which he powered back into the net, was amazing. When you've got players who can do that in big games they are so important."

Ivanovic grew up in the small Serb town of Sremska Mitrovica, near the border with Croatia and Bosnia and made his name with OFK Belgrade – nicknamed "the Romantics" – the capital's third strongest side after Partizan and Red Star. He is part of a first-rate generation of Serbian footballers and now plays alongside Nemanja Vidic in a senior team that is top of World Cup qualifying group seven ahead of France. His preferred spot is centre-back but he starts more often at right-back for his country.

Ivanovic came to prominence in Serbia when he scored the deciding goal in a 3-2 win over Croatia at the 2004 European Under-21 Championship in Germany, a tournament in which Serbia & Montenegro finished losing finalists to Italy. He was captain of the side when Serbia reached the semi-finals in 2006 and then were runners-up in 2007. They lost to England in the group stages that year but only after they had already qualified for the knock-out round.

His anonymous start to life at Chelsea prompted comparisons with Winston Bogarde, the Dutch defender who famously made just 11 appearances in four years at the club while sitting on a lucrative contract. Ivanovic, however, looks like he may well be part of the next Chelsea team after the rebuilding that is expected to take place in the summer. With Carvalho turning 31 next month, the Serbian is the right age profile for Chelsea's new, more frugal approach to life.

So who'll win? Champions League predictions

Three weeks ago, our experts gave their Champions League predictions. Have they changed their minds?

*James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer

Then: Arsenal to win, Barcelona as runners-up.

Now: Unchanged.

*Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent

Then: Manchester United to win, Barcelona as runners-up.

Now: Chelsea to win, Arsenal as runners-up.

*Glenn Moore, Football Editor

Then: Liverpool to win, Manchester United as runners-up.

Now: Barcelona to win, Arsenal as runners-up.

*Ian Herbert, Football Writer Then: Manchester United, Barcelona as runners-up.

Now: Unchanged.

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