James Lawton: Roman may have had key to his holy grail all along: Drogba - News & Comment - Football - The Independent

James Lawton: Roman may have had key to his holy grail all along: Drogba

Ruud Gullit was not just being mischievous in saying victory could embarrass Abramovich

Eight years ago Roman Abramovich moored two of his super-yachts on a bank of the Tagus in Lisbon in a show of opulence and financial power the like of which football had never quite seen before.

He had a fleet of Mercedes on the dockside, with uniformed chauffeurs standing beside them ready to ferry guests – and maybe supplicants – at every hour of the day and night.

Abramovich had just signed Jose Mourinho as his new manager at Chelsea, the first of seven he would appoint in eight years, and now he was visiting the European Championship as he might have strolled through some glittering shopping parade in London or Paris or New York.

Four years later in Moscow, where he had so skilfully laid his hands on a huge share of Russian mineral rights, he was so confident of achieving his dream of the Champions League crown he prepared a party that, had it happened, might have resembled something from the pages of Tolstoy.

Then John Terry slipped on the turf of the Luzhniki Stadium and missed his shoot-out penalty kick.

This, of course, brings us to the extraordinary possibility that tonight in the Allianz Arena in Munich, and despite all his best efforts, the oligarch might finally win the great prize of football that he has craved, we are told, quite as much as he did Francis Bacon's Triptych, which cost approximate £54.5m or, put another way, a shade more than Fernando Torres.

Even though the bookmakers think the idea of what is left of Chelsea getting the better of Bayern Munich is pretty far-fetched – Bayern are 4-9 and Chelsea 13-8 – it may still be true that the former Stamford Bridge manager Ruud Gullit was not being entirely mischievous when he said that victory could as much embarrass as delight Abramovich.

He is, after all, said to be in talks with Fabio Capello, which might well lead to the summary dismissal of temporary manager Roberto Di Matteo, the man who with every unlikely, under-stated step towards tonight's game has managed to make so many of Abramovich decisions look like nothing so much as a great bonfire of folly.

If it should happen that Didier Drogba, who just 16 months ago was more or less assigned to the wilderness by the owner with his lunge for Torres, again does something utterly exceptional on behalf of the club he has served so prodigiously down the years, the flames will lick into every corner of the European game Abramovich was once so sure was about to curl up and surrender.

Gullit argues that if Di Matteo does indeed pull off one of the greatest long shots in the history of the European Cup, Abramovich will be obliged to scrap his latest pursuit of the super-coach of his dreams.

It isn't, of course, necessarily so. The Bayern coach, Jupp Heynckes, who yesterday was arguing the case for a winning Di Matteo to be retained by Chelsea, delivered the big prize to Real Madrid in 1998 only to be promptly fired because of a domestic campaign which had left his team 11 points off the pace in La Liga and in fourth place. The same fate befell Vicente del Bosque at Real after he won two Champions League titles and two league prizes but had showed too little respect for the galactico policy that had just imported David Beckham.

But then Real were a club who, in one of their most wilfully self-destructive phases, gave themselves up to the idea that you can make a team simply by going out and paying the biggest prices for the biggest stars and that a coach, however distinguished, was not around for anything more than the bidding of the men upstairs.

It took the arrival of Mourinho, Abramovich's first victim after the amiable Claudio Ranieri had been sent on his way, to restore some authority to the role of coach at the Bernabeu and if we imagine the air will be thick with irony if Chelsea win tonight, imagine how much more of it there would have been if Real had survived the semi-final against Bayern in the Bernabeu.

Then even Mourinho might have greeted defeat by his old club with a philosophical shrug, especially if Drogba, the man around whom he built his first Chelsea team, proved anything like a match winner.

Drogba, more than any of his team-mates, is at the heart of the paradox of Abramovich's chance of landing at last his great football ambition.

When Torres was imposed upon Carlo Ancelotti last year it was the second time that the whims of Abramovich had threatened to marginalise if not expel the big man from the Ivory Coast. The first undermining of Mourinho came when he was told that Andrei Shevchenko was on his way in 2006.

Mourinho was playing it tight, and economically and ferociously, as he had with Porto when he won his first Champions League, and the key to his success in the sweep to two straight Premier League titles was the ability of Drogba to cover the ground, to run into free space and apply instant pressure. Shevchenko took some of Drogba's ground, and with considerably less energy and impact.

Drogba won the argument then, of course, as he has done since Torres was supposed to push him aside him as he approached his 33rd birthday. But now there is at least the possibility of another kind of victory – and one that if it should proceed tonight will surely force some kind of reflection in the executive suite of Stamford Bridge.

Drogba has consistently re-asserted his quality in all the chaos of the Chelsea administration. He played with sometimes terrifying power under Ancelotti, who – as no stranger to great players – confided on his way to 2010's Double triumph, "Sometimes I think of him as my superman."

Other times, as we see even when he is achieving his greatest triumphs, he is less than that. His play-acting can be a strain on the affection of his greatest admirers, but there is something quite epic in his competitive nature and his contribution to Chelsea's late run towards resurrection has frequently been astounding.

In Africa, he is prized for the extent of his efforts to heal some of the wounds of his native land and his work towards peace has earned him a Time magazine ranking in the top 100 of the world's influential people. It is something that has carried him beyond the touch-lines but it is within these parameters that he has lessons for everyone at Chelsea from the top down.

It is about the value of having faith in the people around you – and maybe a little patience.

He was disconsolate when the ground was taken away from his patron Mourinho, saying, "Something is broken in the dressing room. There is big damage. You know it is natural for players to play for the manager."

He has been less revealing about his reaction to the fall of Ancelotti and the relentless cycle of change that followed the end of Mourinho and brought the desperate days of Andre Villas-Boas.

But it is in his play under Di Matteo that he has been most eloquent, the superb running header against Napoli, the strike against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, the huge work-rate at the Nou Camp. Every stride of it has spoken of the trust which comes when a manager has won the respect of his players and when, by whatever circumstances, that manager believes he has for a little while the freedom to follow all of his professional instincts.

Drogba may not win the Champions League tonight but if he does it might not be the least of his achievements. Who knows, he might just persuade Roman Abramovich that in the end he won the great prize in spite of himself.

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