The Ivorian striker can be as maddening as he is magical – and Barcelona experienced both those qualities
Revenge? It never crossed his mind. That little business back in 2009, when he was suspended for five European matches after cursing Tom Henning Ovrebo from one end of Fulham Road to the other, was hardly going to affect the way Didier Drogba approached this semi-final. Of course it wasn't. But something had to explain a 90‑minute performance that incorporated just about every element of the great Ivorian's repertoire, from the decisive goal through numerous examples of unwarranted histrionics to the yellow card for catching Lionel Messi as Chelsea held out for their remarkable win.
All of which explained why Roberto Di Matteo called upon Drogba instead of Fernando Torres, the scorer of seven goals in 10 league appearances against Barcelona before he left Spain for the Premier League. What Chelsea's interim manager wanted was a player who could be relied on, given an occasion of sufficient grandeur, to lead from the front as John Terry would lead from the back.
Di Matteo put his faith in the old guard on Wednesday night, handing responsibility to the senior players who grew so restless under André Villas-Boas that the season seemed destined to end in a squelch of multiple humiliations. By going along with their desire for empowerment he has now won 10 matches, drawn two and lost only one since taking over in the first week of March, and the latest of those wins came in this match against the team widely acclaimed as the best in the world.
On Drogba's shoulders rested the responsibility for posing a threat to a Barcelona team who were always going to enjoy the lion's share of possession. Di Matteo deployed a line of five midfield players in front of his back four, the lines and the space between them growing more compressed as the match went on. Prowling the centre circle, Drogba was the target of virtually every clearance, expected to provide a few seconds of relief for his team‑mates and, if possible, to conjure something that might give them a precious advantage.
Whatever damage Torres might have been able to inflict on Barcelona's defence, he would not carry the permanent physical threat and the sense of sheer indomitability to which, on his night, Drogba can lay claim. And this, it transpired, was to be one of those nights. His goal, when it came in the second minute of time added on at the end of the first half, was not a ground‑shaking howitzer strike such as he produced against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley in Sunday's FA Cup semi-final. Instead it was the fruit of the brilliant opportunism of two team-mates and of his own ability, undimmed despite a decade and a half at the top of the game, to get himself into the right place at the right time.
If the match started as a caricature of expectations, with Chelsea watching apprehensively as the black shirts of Barcelona ghosted through the evening drizzle, rolling the ball around to their hearts' content, there were nevertheless early indications that the home side, and Drogba in particular, would have their opportunities. His runs to meet long balls required prompt attention from Victor Valdés and Carles Puyol, and once or twice he dropped deep to create space for Ramires, the only midfielder with the licence to venture forward on the counter.
For long periods Chelsea could only stand and watch like the victims of a find-the-lady trickster as the ball was shuttled back and forth between Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fábregas, Alexis Sánchez and Lionel Messi. But then came Drogba's moment, whose likelihood had perversely seemed to increase with every melodramatic collapse to the turf.
This time Messi lost the ball in the centre circle to Frank Lampard's firm challenge, the England man playing the ball swiftly into the path of Ramires, who raced into the left-hand side of the Barcelona area before turning back and measuring a pass that offered Drogba the most straightforward of chances to take his total of Champions League goals to 33. So Lampard, another leader of the old brigade, had played his own part – as had the tireless Ramires, emerging as the most effective representative of the club's new generation.
In its way Chelsea's play was as cerebral as that of Barcelona, requiring a ferocious degree of concentration and self-discipline from each player. After the interval the vast majority of the game was played in the space between the halfway line and the edge of the Chelsea penalty area, with the five blue‑shirted midfield players screening the patterns created by the men in black, forcing them to play the ball wide and then relying on the defenders to intercept and block.
There was something almost exhilarating about Chelsea's resistance. Once again the effect of the mood-shift of recent weeks was rewardingly apparent as they gave themselves what most observers had considered an impossibility: a sporting chance in Camp Nou next week, against opponents now uncomfortably aware that they have a job on their hands. And how Didier Drogba would like to have the last word.