Emile Heskey started the season as the butt of jests about England's woeful World Cup performance, grinning stoically in the audience as Michael McIntyre mocked him on TV's Comedy Roadshow.
Gérard Houllier was not joking yesterday, however, when he likened the Aston Villa striker to Didier Drogba.
The Ivorian has a fever, which will deny a packed Villa Park and the armchair TV audience the opportunity to assess the comparison the Villa manager made as he anticipated Chelsea's visit. But Houllier, who worked with Heskey at Liverpool, argued that the similarities between the pair went further than the fact that both are aged 32, having been born exactly two months apart, and that each stands 6ft 2in.
In terms of goalscoring, they are chalk and fromage. Heskey will be making his 50th Premier League appearance for Villa in direct opposition to John Terry this evening, and has mustered only six goals in those games. Drogba already has as many for the champions and Premier League pacesetters this season. Yet Houllier stuck to his guns. "I watched Chelsea's game against Arsenal," he said. "Drogba is a hard-working centre-forward. But we have one who can do the same. Emile is strong, quick, powerful. It's mainly a matter of faith in himself sometimes."
There have been signs that Heskey's self-belief is returning. He has found the net twice since Houllier's arrival, heading a classic No 9's winner at Wolves, and powered past Sebastien Bassong to create Villa's goal at Tottenham. "Emile won't smash people out of the way [like Drogba]," the Frenchman said. "He's strong physically but he doesn't use his strength. Sometimes he can do better with that.
"But in terms of skill, he does things in training you would be amazed to see. I think he forgets sometimes how good he can be. He's very selfless. Very seldom you can blame him for taking his chance when someone else is in a better position, because he likes to play for the others.
"Even in training he's blossoming. He knows what I expect from him. And he knows I trust him, which probably helps his game, because he needs to feel that. You're not looking at him for making mistakes or missing chances. He knows he can do it and repeat it. A centre-forward is a different animal. Sometimes they disappear for 20 minutes and then produce something, whether out of skill or power. Emile can do both. He knows he can make and score goals, and hold the ball up."
Is it really plausible, though, to discuss Heskey in the same breath as the great Ivorian? "Drogba is a fantastic centre-forward, probably the best in the world. He's got everything. He can score by himself, be on the end of the cross, head the ball, take free-kicks and he works very hard for the team. Emile has got some attributes that look like Didier but doesn't seem to use them. When he does, he's the centre-forward you saw in the last few games.
"With strikers we're sometimes not very patient. We expect too much. If a midfielder has an average game we seem to forget it. But if a striker has an average game, and misses a few chances, you can sometimes destroy his confidence." Did that happen to Heskey? "Probably."
Chelsea won the last League meeting 7-1 in March and beat Martin O'Neill's side 3-0 in the FA Cup the following month but have prevailed only once in 11 visits to Villa. Houllier is again without striker Gabriel Agbonlahor (groin), while defender Curtis Davies has joined Sven-Goran Eriksson's Leicester on a month's loan.
Drogba v Heskey
Goals scored by Didier Drogba and Emile Heskey since the Ivory Coast striker joined Chelsea in July 2004. In that time Heskey has played for Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic and Aston Villa:
2004-05 Drogba: 16 Heskey: 11
2005-06 Drogba: 16 Heskey: 5
2006-07 Drogba: 33 Heskey: 8
2007-08 Drogba: 15 Heskey: 4
2008-09 Drogba: 14 Heskey: 6
2009-10 Drogba: 37 Heskey: 5
2010-11 Drogba: 6 Heskey: 3
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