This week, back in 2004, Chelsea splashed out £24 million on a forward few people knew much about. Didier Drogba, from Marseilles. Drogba had made an impact in Ligue 1, so much so that Chelsea and Jose Mourinho had identified him as the man they wanted to start their very special revolution at Stamford Bridge.
Just over a decade ago, £24 million for a forward was considered huge money, and the Blues were scoffed at for having more cash than sense by a fair few of their rivals. Eight years on, humble pie was eaten in abundance, but not by the Chelsea board.
Didier Drogba stepped up in what has gone on to be known as the game of destiny, and slotted the ball into the back of Manuel Neuer’s net, winning Chelsea their first Holy Grail – or Champions League as the rest of us know it, after years of trying and failing.
It was a moment of fate, a moment Drogba felt his whole Chelsea career had been building up to, and one that saw him go down in history as one of their greatest ever players.
Frank Lampard may have taken that accolade pre Manchester City flirtation, but there are those fans who will tell you to the death that Drogba is their ultimate hero, which for a club who also boasted Zola and the aforementioned Lampard in their ranks, not to mention skipper John Terry, that is lofty praise indeed.
Perhaps the attraction to Drogba, more so than Lampard, is that at times, he was the anti-hero.
He managed to see red in both the knockout tie against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the first leg back in 2004 – a tie that Chelsea went on to win in an enthralling 5-4 victory come full time at Stamford Bridge – and also in Moscow, the final Chelsea failed to win, for slapping one of the only defenders to ever really come out on top against him, Nemanja Vidic.
Drogba is no angel. In fact, as lauded as he is for the win in Munich and his part in getting Chelsea there, he gave away a penalty against Barcelona in the semi-final second leg, which Messi managed to miss, and also one in extra time in Munich, which Petr Cech saved from former Chelsea winger Arjen Robben. Football is full of fine lines however, and fans don’t remember that Drogba’s Chelsea career could have been defined by penalties, but in a very different way.
They remember the goal in the first leg against Barcelona, they remember the header to take them to extra time in Munich. They remember that penalty. And so they should.
Drogba’s success was not just limited to the Champions League with Chelsea. Oh no, the forward was pivotal in their domestic dominance, his career peaking in 2009/2010 under Carlo Ancelotti, when he was quite simply unplayable.
When at his peak, the Ivorian was the best forward in the world. Physical, pacey, lethal on the ball and in the air. In short, a defender’s nightmare – as Philippe Senderos will testify.
He scored goals galore in the Premier League, becoming the first African to net 100 goals in England’s top flight. He scored winners in the League Cup, the FA Cup and against just about every side imaginable.
Drogba did reserve his best for a handful of sides, claiming he struggled against Manchester United when they had a centre back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, although in his return to Chelsea, he netted a header against United at Old Trafford for good measure, and wasn’t shy about finding the back of the net when the duo didn’t play.
Playing Everton always produced some crackers from both Drogba and his partner in crime, Frank Lampard, but it was the north London sides and Arsenal in particular who he reserved his very best for.
As Cesc Fabregas once claimed, ‘we would have most of the possession and be on top, and then Drogba would score’, which sums it up in a nutshell.
It became ridiculous and almost expected that the forward would find the back of the net against Arsenal, with Gunners fans lamenting the fact that Drogba seemed to play like he was from another planet when he faced them.
At one point, Drogba had 15 goals in 15 games against the north London side, for both Chelsea and Galatasaray, averaging a strike every 78 minutes and 20 seconds against the Gunners, and you have to wonder if the fact Arsene Wenger has never actually beaten Jose Mourinho has more to do with that than anything else.
His records are astonishing – ten finals, ten goals, ten trophies if you count his spell with Gala in there as well, eight goals in eight ties at Wembley, including being the only man to score in four FA Cup finals.
The Ivory Coast’s top scorer, the second leading African scorer of all time, the first African to reach 50 goals in European competitions after netting for Chelsea against Schalke. The list goes on and on.
He is, without a doubt, the Premier League’s best ever African player, and was named so in a study by Opta Sport, making him the only African to score the aforementioned 100 league goals, but also the top assister as well, with 55.
He netted 157 goals in 342 appearances for Chelsea in his first spell at the club, and four in his final swansong year – and some of those goals were the biggest in the history of Chelsea Football Club.
It is those goals and assists that proved one half of the cornerstone of Chelsea’s success and formed part of one of the most deadly and successful duos of the last decade in football. Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.
They might not be a Xavi and Iniesta or a Rio and Vidic, even a Cole and Yorke, but they led the Blues to unprecedented success. If it wasn’t a ball from Lampard to Drogba, it was an assist or rebound from Drogba that one of those trademark Lampard runs into the box capitalised on.
Drogba was not only a brilliant player, but is a brilliant man off the field. His charitable endeavours and efforts to bring peace to the war-torn Ivory Coast saw him named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine back in 2010, with his humanitarian actions continuing to this day, and the Didier Drogba Foundation a huge success.
His work in Africa saw him presented with the Barclays Spirit of the Game award at the end of last season, with the forward never forgetting his roots and not only being a footballer who gives money to charity, but one who is actively involved in making a difference and giving something back.
Jose Mourinho once claimed that people should not judge Didier Drogba based on his £24 million price tag when he arrived at the club. The manager told people to wait until Drogba leaves our shores and judge him then. Even Mourinho probably didn’t realise quite how well Drogba would do and how highly they judge him now.