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'Lethal' Drogba holds key for Chelsea

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

Chelsea take two bold statements into the first meaningful Premier League title showdown this season against Manchester United.

Didier Drogba has scored in each of his last six games for Chelsea
In-form Didier Drogba has scored in each of his last six games for Chelsea

Manager Carlo Ancelotti hails striker Didier Drogba as "the best in the world" and Stamford Bridge new chief executive Ron Gourlay believes Chelsea can go on to win the Champions League twice in the next five years.

One rings true. The other sounds rather hollow.

Ancelotti's not wrong about Drogba. He holds the key to the United clash.

Only Fernando Torres comes close to matching him as a goalscoring centre-forward of the highest order right now but the manager's belief that Drogba's resurgence came as a result of the ban imposed after the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona is misplaced.

Very few people in the UK will even have seen the goal that rebooted the career of the African forward. It came in the Turkish port of Izmir on 11 February this year.

The Ivory Coast were trailing Turkey 1-0 into stoppage time in what for almost everyone bar Drogba was a meaningless friendly.

At 31, Drogba is playing the best football of his life. Bold, brash and beefy, he's quick to turn a defender, positive in decision-making and lethal in front of goal.

He had scored just one goal in the previous 10 matches over a barren two-month spell.

He had been at odds with Chelsea manager Phil Scolari, looked disinterested in English football and his career was at the crossroads but with seconds to spare he equalised against the Turks and the goal spun his life around.

It was the first of 36 goals in 42 games for club and country in a remarkable spell since then.

He's netted in his last six matches and in 10 of his last 11. Only Liverpool have kept him at bay in that two-month goal glut.

After replacing the ineffective Scolari, Guus Hiddink encouraged Drogba to impose himself on matches again and Ancelotti has kept the motivational fires burning.

At 31, he's playing the best football of his life. Bold, brash and beefy, he's quick to turn a defender, positive in decision-making and lethal in front of goal.

Drogba could be a nightmare for Manchester United's out of sorts back four just as he was when he scored the only goal against them in the 2007 FA Cup final.

He hasn't started scoring because of his frustration against that Champions League suspension.

He shouldn't have behaved as atrociously as he did towards the referee that night but he knew that he was hitting red-hot form. He knew, with the goals coming thick and fast, it was possibly the best chance he'd have of winning the Champions League.

Often criticised for diving, here was a man who had definitely been cheated.

It maybe another red card that inspires him against United.

The pain will still burn of his dismissal in the 2008 Champions League final against United and Chelsea's spot-kick shoot-out tears but he'll have to improve on his scoring record against the defending Premier League champions.

One goal in 10 meetings would suggest that United, at their best, can handle him.

Drogba's good form could cause problems for a makeshift Manchester United defence
Drogba's good form could cause problems for a makeshift Manchester United defence

Defensively they're far from their best though and have not been in top form since Torres ripped them apart at Old Trafford in March.

Liverpool again exposed flaws in United's last Premier League away game and CSKA Moscow made them look like a group of strangers at the back, but that's just the problem.

They've only been able to name an unchanged back five once this season. Injuries have meant that the Ferdinand/Vidic centre-back partnership has been used in less than a third of their matches.

Both defenders are creaking their way through error-punctuated displays. On Tuesday night against CSKA, Edwin van der Saar also looked rusty after his injury delayed start to the season.

United have their problems. They haven't hit anything like top form and Chelsea start as favourites.

The goal threat of Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and the in-form Frank Lampard will be constant and the gap at the top will be five points unless United come up with something special.

Never forget, with an unrivalled desire instilled by the most fervent manager of them all, they're capable of turning any game in a split second.

Arsenal suffered in late August and CSKA couldn't kill them off this week. A five-point gap would yawn in the face of most clubs - not United.

Sunday's game will be ludicrously hyped in some quarters as a title decider. How foolish, it's far from that, but it will be a pointer to strengths and weaknesses in both camps. Some reputations could be shredded - others forged anew.

Under the sort of pressure that Aston Villa and Atletico Madrid have imposed recently, will Petr Cech rediscover his old penalty box dominance or will Chelsea again concede at set pieces?

Will Chelsea's strength in the holding midfield position through Michael Essien be decisive? It's something United lack, or will the title holders put the challengers in their place?

After all, they did just that in January when they blew Chelsea away 3-0 at Old Trafford. On that day Vidic towered, Rooney excelled and Berbatov gave a glimpse of what United fans are now seeing more and more.

Red is the new black

Chelsea didn't really turn up, Drogba was awful - an absolute disgrace. He was at the lowest point of his career in England.

Ten months later he can do no wrong and it's thrilling to see. His absence, along with that of Essien, Kalou and Mikel for January's African Cup of Nations, will sorely test Chelsea's title challenge.

The current Premier League leaders don't have the toughest fixture list at that time, it's true.

Trips to Hull and Burnley bracket home games with Sunderland and Birmingham but any points dropped in those games will let United and possibly Arsenal back in.

Even though they're top, Chelsea still look too brittle to be a club dropping hints about two Champions League titles in the next five years. Six of the players who faced Atletico this week are already over 30.

Of the first team regulars this season only Essien, Kalou and possibly Ashley Cole can expect to still be there in 2014.

Terry's injury-ravaged body will only take him so far and Lampard will be a huge miss when he packs it in.

There is simply too much upheaval to come for a club still promising to be self-sufficient, albeit not now by Peter Kenyon's 2010 break-even target.

Manchester United may find it extremely tough against Drogba this weekend, but they also know how demanding the thorny path to sustained European glory can prove. Drogba is doing his talking on the pitch. Chelsea should reserve all other chat, for the moment.

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see also
Ancelotti delights in Drogba form
03 Nov 09 |  Chelsea
Drogba wants Chelsea goal record
27 Oct 09 |  African
Chelsea 1-0 Man Utd
08 Nov 09 |  Premier League
Chelsea transfer ban is suspended
06 Nov 09 |  Chelsea
Chelsea ponder naming rights deal
05 Nov 09 |  Chelsea
Ferdinand return date not clear
26 Dec 09 |  Man Utd
Will Benni save SA?
23 Oct 09 |  Internationals
Stepping out of the shadows
20 Oct 09 |  Internationals
Foster's testing future
06 Oct 09 |  Man Utd
Last fan standing
02 Oct 09 |  Everton

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