James Lawton: Drogba says his place in history can wait – at least for while
It's hard to remember a more dramatic galvanising of a talent than Drogba produced
This may have been the night when the dizzying progress of a hitherto brilliant young football coach was rescued from the wrath of a notoriously impatient oligarch.
Time will tell, as it always does in football and in life, but for the moment there is no question where Chelsea's embattled Andre Villas-Boas must register the largest slice of indebtedness he has ever acquired in his meteoric progress from the status of an eager young technician of the game to one of its best rewarded managers.
It is with what is left of the talent of Didier Drogba, who is supposed to be heading down the road which sooner or later beckons the greatest and most formidable of players.
Last night the big, smouldering man from the Ivory Coast said that if he is essentially part of Chelsea's past, edged into the margins by the years and the need – even, the job assignment – of Villas-Boas to make a new and much younger Chelsea, history can wait at least for a little while.
It is hard to remember a more dramatic galvanising of a single talent – and consequently a whole team beset by doubts and the prospect of a humiliating departure from the Champions League – than the one Drogba produced.
Yes, no doubt, Villas-Boas made some vital tactical adjustments. Chelsea no longer defended high and suicidally, at least not in a first phase of cool domination, and there was a clear sense of a team who had found a way to play which made sense, most importantly, to themselves.
But no coach is so inspired, so capable of producing a game plan which meets perfectly the requirements of a desperate situation, that he is not dependent on the ability of certain players to produce the best of themselves when it matters most. In the first half Drogba brought to Stamford Bridge the first serious mood of confidence and calm since the days when Carlo Ancelotti seemed to have seamlessly unearthed the old strength of the team shaped by Jose Mourinho.
By the second half Drogba had become a little less imperious, his running was not quite so devastating, at least until a brilliant surge carried him into the Valencia box with less than 20 minutes to go, but already he had made an indelible mark on this most crucial of nights. His first goal, before Valencia could truly measure the extent their challenge, had all of his powerful control and finishing poise. And then when he put Ramires in for the second with a pass that was less than perfect, but the final touch of another devastating run, Chelsea were suddenly serene.
His second killing goal was the statement of the player who down all the years had so often represented the strength and the striking head of a potentially great team.
Who knows how the potential that Villas-Boas brought to London so confidently will develop now? His celebrations were ecstatic last night, as well they might have been, because unquestionably this was a performance beyond anything he had been able to shape in the first few months of his great challenge.
For the first time Villas-Boas might have been said to have fielded a team which indeed – and ironically enough, given the extraordinary performance of Drogba – did clearly smack not of a faded past and a critical present but the possibilities of a gilded future.
There was plenty of promise from the likes of Daniel Sturridge, even if he had to be cast as the slim promising apprentice beside a heavyweight master, and Oriel Romeu – and in midfield the more experienced Juan Mata and Raul Meireles were the men of touch and savvy alongside the hare-like Ramires.
Frank Lampard, surprisingly at such a critical moment in the history of the club he has served for so long, so relentlessly, was on the bench and a huge celebrant of the one-two punch which put Chelsea on the way to the serious end of the tournament upon which Roman Abramovich puts so much weight.
For Lampard it was surely a night to reflect, as Drogba no doubt did before the kick-off, on how quickly the certainties of the finest careers reach points of critical examination. Plainly, Chelsea are a team who have to create new momentum, and it will take a mighty effort from Lampard now to remain more than an old fighter hanging on to the remnants of his greatest days.
His competitive character is such that he will not go easily. No more than his old and sometimes tempestuous ally did last night. Drogba may sooner than later also be reassigned to the last of his football challenges, somewhere rewarding, no doubt, but not the battleground of his pomp, the one he filled so magnificently last night.
However, Villas-Boas has compelling reasons to weigh the last of Didier Drogba extremely carefully. The big man may be nearing the end of an essentially stupendous career, but last night we saw one of the oldest truths of football. We saw the all-enveloping impact of a great player who believes he still has a little to offer.
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