"He was the one who made the difference," said one Premiership manager when asked about his thoughts on Didier Drogba. "He killed us. Not just that but I could see that some of my players were scared of him."
Unsurprisingly, the manager - given that admission of fear - wanted to remain anonymous. But he is not alone. The effect Drogba has had on Chelsea and their opponents has grown to such an extent that he, rather than Frank Lampard or John Terry, is now the true talisman for Jose Mourinho's side.
Seventeen goals so far this season is an exceptional return for the striker from the Ivory Coast. But it has also been the quality, and the timing, of his strikes that have caught the eye. Drogba has scored the winning goal in each of Chelsea's last three games including the League Cup victory at Newcastle United on Wednesday evening when he had to come off the bench - again - to change proceedings. At a time when the champions have not been firing, he's been the one still capable of pulling the trigger.
Interestingly, the anonymous manager was not referring to his side's meeting with Chelsea this season. He was talking about a fixture last year. For although Drogba's present form is phenomenal - and has won over the doubters - his impact has been felt by his opponents in England for some time. Just ask Arsenal's Philippe Senderos who has been exposed in his contests with Drogba.
The 28-year-old was always central to Mourinho's plans and the manager will smile at the thought that he has spread fear. That is exactly what he wanted when he paid £24m to bring Drogba, all 6ft 2in and 13 1/ 2 st of him, from Marseilles to Stamford Bridge soon after his own arrival in London in the summer of 2004. Mourinho wanted his team to play in a certain style and needed the power, aggression, stamina and intelligence of Drogba as the fulcrum of his attack.
Indeed, the association between the two pre-dates that move. Mourinho, when manager of Porto, tried to sign Drogba, then at the relatively obscure French club Guingamp, but instead had to settle for Derlei. Then Mourinho was outbid, but when he returned for Drogba, that was never going to happen again.
That link helps explain the closeness between the two. "Our relationship is very down to earth," Drogba said of Mourinho. "There's mutual trust between us. He gives me the chance to play and I put in the performances he wants. I do the work for him. We understand each other. That generates respect. It's true we get on well. We have some similarities like our desire to win. We never give up. Like him, I'm a proud person. I might be slightly privileged within the group because he's the one who made me come."
Intriguingly, Drogba also said he responds to Mourinho's "sensitive side, even though you may not expect much sensitivity from him. He protects himself from the media, but at the same time he puts on an act. He can be severe but can also put his hand on his heart".
Drogba likens his relationship with Mourinho to "a bit like the relationship he had with William Gallas" and, like the French defender, now at Arsenal of course following an acrimonious split, the striker faced a crisis last season and over the summer. Firstly, accusations of diving came to a head in the victory at home to Manchester City when he scored twice but was booed by Chelsea fans after being announced as man of the match. Then Andrei Shevchenko's arrival, for more than £30m, seemed to unsettle him. Tentative overtures were made by Lyon and Milan but Drogba resolved to stay.
Shevchenko, and his troubles, then seemed to liberate Drogba. Tactical switches - to a 4-4-2 - lifted the burden of being a lone striker while, having fully settled in England and being more familiar with the language, Drogba kicked on. "What he has done this season is no surprise to me or anyone else in France," his agent, Pierre Frelot, said yesterday. "The thing about Didier is that he is very collective, he plays for the team, he's very human and he's very different."
Frelot acknowledged that another factor was the new contract his client signed in November which extended his deal to 2010. It confirmed he was wanted and with that confirmation came a doubling of his salary to about £100,000 a week.
Problems remain. Drogba still misses opportunities, and his ridiculous collapse following a gentle prod from Jens Lehmann shows that the theatrics remain. But the most telling comment this season came from the Barcelona coach, Frank Rijkaard, after Drogba's stunning 93rd-minute equaliser in the Nou Camp. "It was a tight, close game and Drogba changed all that," he said. It has been a familiar refrain.
Everyone's a winner (nearly)
Didier Drogba has been key to Chelsea's fine season, scoring 50 per cent of their winning goals in all competitions, the highest ratio out of the Premiership's leading scorers.
Total goals: 17. Prem: 10
Number of times Chelsea have won by one goal: 10
Drogba scored winner: 5
Total goals: 8. Prem: 8
Number of times Reading have won by one goal: 6
Doyle scored winner: 2
Total goals: 9. Prem: 9
No of times Portsmouth have won by one goal: 4
Kanu scored winner: 0
Louis Saha and Wayne Rooney
Total goals: Saha 12. Prem: 8. Rooney: 8. Prem: 8.
No of times Man United have won by one goal: 8
Saha scored winner: 2
Rooney scored winner: 1Reuse content