James Lawton: Didier Drogba lets go of the histrionics to summon up his old heroics for Chelsea

One minute he is the Lion of Africa and then a rather self-indulgent pussycat

Stamford Bridge

You couldn't know for sure whether it was an act of provocation or a serious statement about Chelsea's ill-considered potential to not only embarrass but also beat possibly the most celebrated team in the history of football.

Such ambiguity so often lurks at the shoulder of Didier Drogba. One minute he is the Lion of Africa and then a rather self-indulgent pussycat. He gave us both versions on the way to the moment he landed the blow that was surely heard all over Europe.

He sprawled on the ground and was at his most theatrical after a futile aerial duel with Carles Puyol. He took a wrong turning when in the early going the Barcelona defence seemed to be stretched out passively before him – and with each slip from the extraordinary level of ferocity he has produced in recent games you wondered if his temporary manager Roberto di Matteo was questioning his decision to keep faith with the 34-year-old warrior rather than turn to Fernando Torres.

It was speculation that died with the goal that gathered in the best of Chelsea's attempt to produce what so many believed was beyond their dwindling powers. Frank Lampard, another of those old Jose Mourinho soldiers celebrating their survival of the AVB project, set the tone perfectly when he stripped the ball from, of all people, Lionel Messi, and sent Ramires scampering down the left. It was a one-two combination which threw luminous Barça against the ropes and there was Drogba, a lion once more, stabbing home with his left foot.

Inevitably, the Didier contribution continued to swing from the hardest, cleanest action to those moments when he seems intent on parodying the most fearless and dynamic of his work. Early in the second half he enraged that most pugnacious of Catalans, Puyol, when he rolled on the ground in what seemed to be quite advanced agony. Yet when he was back on his feet there was still another mood swing. He charged at the Barça defence with a force and an ambition that might have been distilled from the rage he displayed three years ago when his opponents rode here on a tide of official incompetence to a Champions League final with Manchester United in Rome. That ruined Drogba's hope of redemption from his dismissal in the Moscow final with United a year earlier, when he slapped the face of Nemanja Vidic in the climactic, withering tension.

Last night, though, it was as though Drogba was reaching out again for the greatest of his ambition. His commitment was as huge as his profile in the game, one that long before the end was plainly wearing at the composure of the champions of both Europe and the imagination of the football world.

He received a yellow card for a tackle on Messi and there was a moment when he wasn't somewhere near the heart of Chelsea's determination to agitate and harass the team who are not supposed to find themselves spilling on to the same frustrated level of their opponents.

That Messi should be one of those touched by the growing sense that Di Matteo, who these last few weeks was expected to conduct not a whole lot more than the last rites, was the ultimate measure of major achievement.

Not only were Barcelona denied that vital away goal, the one that enables champions of this quality to shrug their shoulders over the resistance of the locals and announce that the essentials of the job had been completed, they were also pushed to the edge of some very serious frustration.

They played some sweet football of course but when Cesc Fabregas, who had delayed a rather smug pre-game address about the growing crudity of Chelsea's game, came off in the second half he was wearing an expression which could not be said to be serene.

It was the statement of a team of superior quality but on this occasion well-matched ambition. Chelsea had only the chains of their widely anticipated decline to shed and they threw them off quite brilliantly.

There was a shortlist of heroes of imposing length and high on it no doubt was Ashley Cole, and there was, again, the relentless Lampard.

But then it was still hard to look too far beyond the force and the charisma of the man from the Ivory Coast. Di Matteo decided that he need the certainty of his aura, the strange but recurring force of his will. It was a brilliant decision and it may yet produce unimagined rewards.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
News
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial