The striker has a history of red cards and red mists on the big stage in Europe but could make amends against Bayern Munich
Didier Drogba can sometimes feel like a mesh of contradictions. The hulking centre-forward who batters and bullies but also tumbles and writhes; the ruthless and selfish goalscorer who likes to muck in defensively; the combustible competitor who is the polite and generous family man away from the field.
It is a cup final curiosity, though, that preoccupies him and it forms a thick layer of his motivation for Saturday night's Champions League collision with Bayern Munich in what could well be his valedictory appearance in a Chelsea shirt. Drogba has been almost untouchable in domestic finals yet his fortunes in European and international showpieces have needed to be filed under the nightmarish.
Earlier this season, in the Africa Cup of Nations that Ivory Coast were finally supposed to win, Drogba led his country to the final before imploding against Zambia. His second-half penalty ought to have settled the matter; instead he lifted the ball high over the bar. Zambia won the trophy after a penalty shoot-out, which provided Drogba with uncomfortable déjà vu. In the final of the 2006 competition Ivory Coast had lost on penalties to Egypt and Drogba missed his kick in the shoot-out.
Drogba was a Uefa Cup final loser to Valencia in 2004 with Marseille and many observers felt he was lucky to avoid a red card. Already on a booking, he kicked out in the 89th minute and was spared only by the leniency of the referee, Pierluigi Collina. Yet there was no such charity on the night that traumatised everybody connected to Chelsea in 2008.
Drogba was sent off in the Champions League final defeat by Manchester United for a petulant slap at Nemanja Vidic in extra-time and everyone knows what happened next. The tremors from John Terry's missed penalty in the shoot-out that deprived Chelsea of the ultimate high have never truly dissipated, although Drogba and some of the survivors from the chaos in Moscow now have the opportunity to realign their karma.
"That was a difficult moment for me and the club," said Drogba. "It's one memory I cannot forget. It was an experience, a first Champions League final for Chelsea, and I think we've learned from it. I hope that this final is going to be great for us. We've been waiting four years to be in this situation."
It has been inevitable that the defeat by United has exerted an influence over the Chelsea camp in the countdown to kickoff at the Allianz Arena, yet it was notable, too, to hear the Bayern players discuss it. The Bavarian club know a thing or two about Champions League final heartbreak at the hands of United and there is a wariness that Drogba & Co might resemble wounded animals.
"Those players who were in Moscow for the final will have the extra motivation," said the midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. "They will be the most dangerous. They know maybe that it is their last chance to try and win the title they unfortunately lost there. I'm talking about Drogba, [Frank] Lampard, Ashley Cole and [Michael] Essien. Drogba is a player who can get a goal out of nothing. He is probably the most dangerous."
The respect and admiration for Drogba within Bayern ranks is palpable, even if it has been undercut in some quarters by an acknowledgment of his darker arts. Together with the rest of Europe, the Bayern squad watched Drogba score the only goal of Chelsea's semi-final first leg against Barcelona but spend an inordinate amount of time on the ground.
"Sometimes he overdoes it a bit; sometimes he is an outstanding actor on the pitch," said the Bayern manager, Jupp Heynckes. "But for many years Drogba has been one of the top strikers in the Premiership and he is definitely dangerous. He can score at any moment, although it would be remiss to concentrate solely on one player."
The goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said: "Drogba is a total professional and a real danger to us. He gives everything and I have seen him helping out in defence, when Chelsea have been under pressure, while we know what he can do at the other end."
Drogba has done it all domestically with Chelsea and his record in English cup finals marks him as a legend ahead of his time. He has won four out of four in the FA Cup, most recently against Liverpool two weeks ago, and two out of three in the Carling Cup – the blot being the 2008 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur. He has scored in all seven finals, with two coming in the 2007 Carling Cup defeat of Arsenal.
Since his return from the Africa Cup of Nations in February the 34-year-old has summoned some colossal performances in the biggest games, with arguably the best coming in the Champions League last 16 second leg against Napoli and the FA Cup semi-final success over Tottenham.
It is tempting to wonder why, if he remains the man for the grand occasion through the sheer force of his personality, Chelsea have not tied him to a new contract. Roberto Di Matteo, the interim coach, said he had seen nothing to suggest Drogba could not reprise such form next season. "It's not a question of age," Di Matteo said.
Chelsea, though, appear ready to wave him off on a Bosman free transfer, possibly to Nicolas Anelka's Shanghai Shenhua, to leave him striding to the bar at the last chance saloon. With Drogba and Chelsea the Champions League has tended to end in red cards, red mists, missed penalties and recrimination. From Liverpool's 'Ghost goal' to Drogba's infamous meltdown after Barcelona's smash-and-grab at Stamford Bridge, the bottom line has been depressingly consistent.
It surely has to change one day and Drogba intends it to be now. The tears of sorrow and rage would make victory taste implausibly sweet. Drogba stands to take his leave with the triumph to complete him.