With Didier Drogba set for an emotional reunion with Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, Michael Cox assesses how the Galatasaray striker has changed his game since leaving west London, and the threat he could pose to the Blues' Champions League dream...
Ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League meeting with Galatasaray, Chelsea supporters will require little introduction to the threat of Drogba. A popular figure at Stamford Bridge throughout his eight years with the club, the Ivorian sealed his place in Chelsea’s history by scoring the equaliser and decisive shootout penalty in the European Cup final of 2012, leaving English football on an unparalleled high note.
After leaving London, Drogba moved to China with Shanghai Shenhua, which seemed an indication he was taking semi-retirement – his top-level career over, all his targets in European club football now met. Chelsea fans didn’t expect to see him return to European football so soon.
However, his surprise transfer to Galatasaray last January thrust Drogba back into the spotlight. He scored against Real Madrid in the Champions League last season, won yet another title in May and has been excellent in this season’s European Cup. But is this the Drogba of old, or has the Ivorian declined since leaving Stamford Bridge?
The truth is somewhere in between. Drogba’s initial move to China suggested he didn’t have the motivation to continue at 100% in a major league, and since moving to Turkey he’s performed inconsistently, starring in some of the bigger matches but not demonstrating his full potential against minnows.
For example, Drogba has two goals and two assists in six Champions League games this season, and by all accounts has been one of Galatasaray’s best players – he’s clearly still capable of performing on the highest stage, against the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus. But in the Turkish league he’s scored just two goals in his last 11 matches. It seems Drogba is performing when he wants to – which, by and large, is on the biggest stage.
In reality, that’s similar to his career at Chelsea. Throughout his eight years at Stamford Bridge, Drogba’s ‘big game’ record was sensational. Amazingly, he’s both the only player to have scored in four FA Cup finals and the only player to have scored in three League Cup finals. Add a crucial European Cup goal into the equation and Drogba was the ultimate big game player.
His goalscoring record in the league, however, was surprisingly underwhelming. He only broke the 12-goal barrier twice (although he won the Golden Boot on both occasions) and only scored five more goals than Yakubu Ayegbeni, a somewhat less celebrated African striker active around the same period. Drogba was never a truly consistent player – but when he wants to perform, he does.
Now in his mid-thirties, Drogba isn’t as mobile as he was at his peak, and is therefore a more limited striker. However, he remains excellent in the air and he’s become a better provider of goals with flick-ons and knock-downs for the likes of Burak Yilmaz, his more energetic strike partner, and Wesley Sneijder, who plays in the hole. This was particularly evident in the 2-2 draw at Juventus in the group stage, where he created 3 chances.
That game was also interesting because Drogba rarely received the ball in dangerous positions within the final third. He spent the majority of the contest battling towards the halfway line, and while he scored a fine goal from long range in that contest, Chelsea will be content for him to spend so much time in deeper zones.
It was a similar story in the return match – Galatasaray’s controversial 1-0 victory over Juventus, when the match was abandoned because of snow, then replayed the next day on a scruffy pitch.
Drogba barely received the ball in dangerous positions, and his distribution (often from his head) in the final third was wayward. Nevertheless, he produced a fine headed assist in the dying moments for Sneijder’s winner.
That’s the danger with Drogba. He’s capable of being extremely quiet for 89 minutes, then producing a decisive contribution to change the game. The basic question, against his favourite club and favourite manager, is whether Drogba is truly up for the game. If he considers this a big match, he’ll ensure he’s the star player.