Chelsea's great anti-hero leads the old guard back to Wembley—can he take them to the Champions League final as well?
This may be Didier Drogba's last season at Stamford Bridge, but the 34-year-old striker remains Chelsea's talisman.
A vintage centre forward's performance in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Sunday, capped by a magnificent goal, was the catalyst of Chelsea's emphatic 5-1 victory over Spurs, setting up a potential last hurrah for this ageing side in the FA Cup final.
Drogba rejected a contract extension earlier this season and looks likely to be leaving the London side in the summer, along with several teammates who have formed the backbone of Chelsea's success over the past decade. But if Sunday's performance is anything to go by, the controversial Ivorian will not be going quietly.
After a troublesome season, which has seen yet another manager come and go under the regime of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Chelsea have struggled to keep pace with the leaders in the Premiership. But since Roberto Di Matteo replaced the inexperienced Andre Villas Boas in the hot seat, some inspired performances in the European Cup and FA Cup have set up a potentially glorious finale. And Drogba appears to have regained his appetite and fitness at a crucial moment.
He tormented Spurs' experienced central defence on Sunday. With a performance of strength, power and persistence, Drogba showed why, at his peak, he has been the best striker in the Premiership for the past decade and why he remains Chelsea's biggest attacking threat, irrespective of the presence of £50 million rival Fernando Torres and exciting young prospect Romelu Lukaku.
The Blues are a stronger and more confident side with Drogba leading the line. While the years of knocks, niggling injuries and a bout of malaria have clearly slowed the engine in recent years, he retains the physical strength, aerial power and ability to hold the ball that Torres, who has endured a wretched time in London since his big-money arrival, can only dream of.
And, crucially, Drogba still has the happy knack of scoring on the big occasion.
Chelsea will look to him to display all of these attributes Wednesday when they face their bete noire, the mighty Barcelona, in the first leg of the European Cup semifinal at the Bridge.
For Drogba, redemption and revenge will be on his mind, as his memory drifts back to that night in 2009 when he lost all sense of proportion and discipline, berating the referee following Chelsea's elimination at the hands of the Catalans. The perception in the Chelsea camp was that they were on the wrong end of several refereeing decisions before Andres Iniesta scored a late, heart-breaking winner for Barcelona. The Ivorian was the wide-eyed, ranting, expletive-filled personification of this sense of injustice. His post-match antics earned him a ban from the following season's competition and the disdain of many neutrals.
The continent's premier competition has brought only heartache in South London. Abramovich's dream of European glory has often been snatched away from him when it seemed in his grasp. For this Chelsea side, of which Drogba has been a vital component for many years, this is their last chance to justify the vast expenditure of their Russian owner in pursuit of his obsession.
But standing in their way is possibly the best club side ever. A career-defining performance from Drogba will be required. He will be the one his teammates will look to to lead from the front and take the fight to Barcelona and to inspire the crowd to provide a raucous, intimidating atmosphere to unsettle even the most confident of teams.
As good as they are, Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol—Barcelona and Spain's all-conquering central defensive partnership—will not relish meeting the old warrior Drogba, fired by a desire for revenge and tormented by his failure to claim what he believes to be rightfully his, a European Cup winner's medal.
Too often, Drogba has made headlines for the wrong reasons—his embarrassing dives and play acting, his petulant disputes with referees and teammates, his reported undermining of his managers. If this is to be his swan song, now more than ever Drogba's devoted supporters need him to conjure up 90 minutes of the swashbuckling style that made them love him in the first place.