HAPPY BIRTHDAY ROMAN
And so the revolution continues apace. Despite the innate conservatism of the Mourinho years, Chelsea have rediscovered their roots. Inferior opposition – and without the injured Kevin Kuranyi, inferior seems almost too mild a term for toothless Schalke – are being put to the sword with comfortable disdain. Faced with a stiffer challenge, such as the cauldron of fervour that is the Mestalla, the team rises to the challenge. Can Avram Grant really be the man to marry style with substance?
Well no, if we’re completely honest. There were alarming signs of profligacy in the back four last night, most notably when Alex’s gruesome short back pass nearly fell neatly for Soren Laursen. The Brasilian centre-half appeared to yank his opponent back by the shirt. Neither a foul nor a card was shown.
Once again, the question on the minds of the subdued home support last night must have been… what the hell would we do without Didier Drogba? With Shevchenko making the briefest of brief cameos to replace Joe Cole with only seconds to play, Drogba is the only potent attacking threat that this team seems to possess at the moment. Frank Lampard, quiet by his standards, seemed to have a brief to create play rather than bomb forward and wait for his chance at the edge of the box. The dynamic running in midfield was done by the inexhaustible Essien. There’s only one problem with that: the Ghanaian’s shooting is wild at the best of times. When it comes off – close your eyes, Arsenal fans – he produces goal of the season challengers. When it doesn’t, he’s in serious danger of decapitating a denizen of the Matthew Harding stand. He came close with a couple of crisp headers last night, but had no real sustained goal threat. The one real foray forward from Chelsea’s number 8 was capped with a typically venomous shot, but it flew marginally high. He deserved his brief rendition of “Super Frankie Lampard”, though, if only for the delicate way he pulled the strings and set others in motion. Henk Ten Cate has talked of the need for a playmaker in the Iniesta or Deco mould, perhaps choosing to studiously ignore the presence at Chelsea of a man thought of as one of the game’s great technical passers of the ball. Michael Ballack is still weeks away from a return, we’re told, but Lampard’s sweet passing range last night made the German’s absence seem far less urgent. Is it possible for Lampard to marry the two discplines – goal-scoring and creativity – whilst ignoring the Gerrard-like compulsion to thump the pigskin 65 yards and, inevitably, out for a throw-in?
Back to Drogba, who was, once again, the very definition of the word “handful”. Such understatement is probably in order for a man who only recently suggested that he’d be happier in Spain or Italy, but on current form he is quite simply irrepressible. It’s a mark of his awe-inspiring athleticism that the crowd expects him to routinely beat a pair of 6ft centre-backs, no matter how closely he’s man-marked. And his repertoire continues to amaze: when he isn’t running 40 yards to take the ball to the byline and dink a cross in for a woefully late Joe Cole, he’s back-flicking, or dummying, or simply muscling his way through. His goal was a symphony of power and precision, with plenty of work still to do after Paulo Ferreira released the ball from the right wing. His dive summoned the power to guide the ball nearly past the panic-stricken Manuel Neuer. It’s hard to decide who you can compare Drogba to when he’s in this sort of form. There are flashes of creativity and quick thinking that call to mind any number of tricky centre-forwards of recent years, but he carries his huge frame so lightly and with such grace that one can sometimes forget his imposing physique. He looks like a dancer that could run through a brick wall.
So, happy birthday Roman. 41’s a tricky age, with youth well and truly behind you and the years of glorious senescence still to come. I hope you’re enjoying the gifts you were brought last night, and you’re quite clear in your own mind about who provided most of them. Because, clinical and impressive though Chelsea were at times, and more adventurous their style might be, it would all fall down if it weren’t for probably the most frightening striker in world football at the moment. Whatever we have to do to hold onto the Drog, let’s do it.