Didier Drogba is the embodiment of Chelsea — in both negative and positive ways.
The striker’s 100th Premier League goal was the decisive one in a scrappy game as Chelsea beat a stubborn Stoke side to give themselves real hope of catching Arsenal and Tottenham to secure third place in the Premier League.
It also gave Roberto Di Matteo his second straight victory — and first in the league — after taking over from the sacked Andre Villas-Boas last week, and offered some optimism that the Blues can overturn a 3-1 deficit against Napoli on Wednesday and continue in the Champions League.
With an FA Cup quarter-final at home to Leicester City next weekend, you might think it is starting to look rosier in the Blues’ garden, but there is nothing straightforward about this Chelsea flower show.
For a start, there was little in their performance to suggest a dramatic improvement on what cost AVB his job — a lack of imagination, disjointed football, and little to set the pulse racing. As Di Matteo said afterwards: “Sometimes you play really well and score loads of goals, but sometimes you have to win scrappy. It is not always easy or pretty.”
The main reason why Chelsea have failed to reach the levels expected of them by their fans, the pundits, and most importantly the club’s owner Roman Abramovich, is that no one is getting the best out of their best players, both individually and collectively.
Part of this is down to interference from above, and it has been clear for some time that figures other than the manager have been involved in team selection.
Fernando Torres and David Luiz were the two players that were foisted on first Carlo Ancelotti and then AVB, and both caused problems that have been well-documented. Whether Di Matteo was given licence to pick and choose whoever he wanted, we don’t know, but it was a surprise to see both Torres and Luiz dropped, and an even bigger surprise to see the same fate befall Juan Mata, who has been seen largely as a success since joining from Valencia last summer.
Before the first-half was through, however, Di Matteo realised he was wrong about Mata and sent him on to replace Raul Meireles, and the little Spaniard set up Drogba to take the ball round Asmir Begovic and score his landmark goal in the 68th minute.
“It meant a lot to me as I am the first African player to reach this amount of goals,” said the Ivorian. “I couldn’t achieve that without my team-mates, their assists in all the games we played together. I want to thank the club and their fans for their support, especially to the club for signing me eight years ago. We are very happy.”
Yet Drogba and many of his team-mates do not appear to be playing with the same joie de vivre that led them to three Premier League titles and three FA Cups, as well as the Champions League final in 2008. They have a huge task to get to another final, or at least past Napoli, but Drogba believes they can do it: “We have to focus on the next game, which is the Champions League and we will try and win it. I think it is possible to go through because if we play the way we played today and against Birmingham, it will be difficult but possible.”
After Leicester in the FA Cup they then face Manchester City and Tottenham in the league, and Drogba is looking to overtake the latter. “Getting into the top four and the Champions League is very important,” he said.
Chelsea were boosted by the early return from knee surgery of John Terry, and the captain also believes they can catch Arsenal or Spurs — or both. “We are taking it one game at a time. Tottenham lost which helps our league position. It will be tough until the end of the season but we are very determined to keep pushing.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess, though. Whether Di Matteo has a chance of a permanent job when the season finishes depends on what his side achieve in the final two months.
They could do with playing against the likes of Ricardo Fuller every week. The Stoke midfielder was sent-off after 25 minutes for a stamp on the groin of Branislav Ivanovic and left his team-mates with an uphill battle. It was the sixth red card of his career, and manager Tony Pulis was far from impressed.
“He’s a great lad, a lovely man and I’ve got a lot of time for him.
“But what he did today was unacceptable and there’s no hiding the fact that he shouldn’t have done it.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved