Jason Burt

THE CHELSEA ENIGMA. Owner's favourite player is determined to earn respect and win over candid manager
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The Independent Football

Not so long ago, Andriy Shevchenko was the original Chelsea "untouchable". Try as he might - and he tried mightily - Roman Abramovich couldn't prise his friend and favourite player away from Milan.

That all changed last summer, when an offer of £30.8 million for a striker nearing his 30th birthday, and with his American wife, the model Kirsten Pazik, desperate to move to London to raise their children, proved irresistible. Shevchenko asked to go and the Italians relented.

It has not been the happiest of moves and, on Friday morning, Shevchenko woke up to headlines telling him he did not feature among an elite of eight Chelsea players named by the manager, Jose Mourinho. They were his "untouchables", and "Sheva" was not one of them. He had, the manager agreed, "failed to adapt". Such frankness must have been a shock to the system.

By lunchtime, Shevchenko was pulling up a chair at the club's training ground to explain his thoughts on the subject, the disappointments and frustrations he has felt since moving to Chelsea - and why it is "ridiculous" to claim that he is looking to return to Milan.

First, Mourinho's candid assessment. "It's a thing a manager has to decide over the whole season, for the whole team and for the club's objectives," Shevchenko says in a mix of Italian and English - which he has made admirable progress in - of the selections. "If a manager decides that a player has to be dropped then it has to be accepted. This is a team game and there are 22 players all fighting to be in the team."

But did it not hurt to be excluded, especially as Ashley Cole and Michael Ballack, the other major summer signings, were named? "I have belief in Jose. What he decides, I accept," he says. "My work here is to play well and help the team." Tellingly, in a message to Mourinho he adds: "I have no doubts that when I get my right form I will play."

Shevchenko is at pains to point out that, yes, he has struggled to adapt but also struggled with fitness after suffering knee ligament damage at the end of last season. "For me continuity is important," he says. "But I changed country, changed everything. Also I wasn't happy with my fitness.

"It was difficult with injury, the World Cup and all the changes. I didn't manage to rest and there's also more pressure with a new team. Everything seemed to be about Andriy Shevchenko. I spent seven years in Milan. It's always a problem when you change language, culture - and for my family also."

Given the Ukrainian's stellar status - European Cup winner, player of the year and serial top scorer in Serie A - did he not expect an easier ride? "At Milan, also, I had difficult times," he says. "I wasn't given respect and confidence, I earned it. And what I'm doing here is working hard, I'm helping the team and when I feel I'm on top form I have no problems at all."

That day, he feels, is close. "My performances are better," he argues, with six goals after his midweek strike against Levski Sofia that made him the second-highest scorer in the history of European competition. "I'm not worried about them now. I've spoken to Jose a lot and it's a good feeling. Everything is OK."

Mourinho has given him time to prove himself - he has also dropped him, not rested him, at least twice - and will continue to do so. He needs him. Having changed formation, playing with two strikers, and trimmed his squad, he cannot afford to carry passengers. So is Shevchenko worried that a new striker may arrive in the transfer window? The question pricks his pride - and competitive spirit. "The team need to win and will win things," he says. "And if the club decide that other players are needed, they will bring them in. Big teams have big objectives. Nobody in any of the big teams has a clear right to play all the time."

Mourinho's definition of being an untouchable - Frank Lampard, John Terry, Claude Makelele, Michael Essien, Ricardo Carvalho and Didier Drogba were the others - included the clear qualification of "because of the way he plays". It's a form thing. Mourinho believed Shevchenko was "going in the right direction".

Chelsea are at home to Arsenal today. Not long ago it would have been a contest between two title contenders. Now Chelsea's priority is to pull back Manchester United's lead. "It's a big game for Arsenal," Shevchenko says. "But it's very important for Chelsea that there's a six-point difference between us and Manchester. In these big games we have to be ready. It's a game I want to play well in."

A good performance would help alleviate the pressure that increased further after a Russian newspaper printed quotes claiming he would "pack his bags" if Mourinho did not want him. He denies saying any such thing, or talking to the publication. "If the media continue to write things I have not said then I will not speak to them any more," he says.

But what of Milan? Would he go back? Even one of his agents, Fabio Parisi, has said "never say never". "I'm staying here," Shevchenko says emphatically. "It's just talk, talk. I've never thought once about going back to Milan. My objective is for Chelsea to win something big. But I also came here for a special reason. Do you think I would want to leave after three months?"