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.

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