By George Ankers
One or two months ago, Chelsea might have been a little more content to see Didier Drogba pack his bags for “a new challenge” and prepare for life without him.
But the events of the past few weeks have reminded everyone at Stamford Bridge, and the rest of the world, just what a magnificent player the Ivory Coast international has been and still is – and how difficult it will be to replace him.
Drogba’s decision to move on at the end of his contract makes total sense from his point of view – having played such a huge part in the Champions League final and won it with his last kick as a Blues player, there is nothing left for him to win with the club and no particular reason to assume that they will repeat any of it next year anyway.
The striker departs London an immortal Chelsea hero and an unquestioned great of modern English football, and does so on the ultimate high. Whoever he joins next will be enhanced greatly.
To say the Blues will miss him, however, is an understatement of the highest order. The ageing marksman might have made only 25 starts last term and scored 13 goals, his joint-worst return for the club – but he has not lost the knack of stepping up when it matters most.
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Chelsea are unlikely to find someone else who is quite the same unstoppable force of nature any time soon – as yet, there is not a natural heir to Drogba – but they do face the question of whether or not they still want to play the Ivorian’s way.
Whether it be Roberto Di Matteo or someone else who dictates the openings of the Blues’ chequebook this summer, a decision must be made on style next season. Options are important but the most successful teams do not rotate their main strikers each week. One or two men, depending on the new manager’s tactical leanings, will be the focal point of the post-Drogba Chelsea era.
The chief choice in preparations for 2012-13 will be whether or not to trust Fernando Torres. For so long after his £50 million move from Liverpool, the Spaniard had been a cruel parody of a striker, turned from demon to lemon with the slump of shoulders.
His apparent displeasure at being left out of the starting XI in Munich is little short of delusional, even given partial evidence of a long-overdue improvement – but, with Drogba gone, this is the time to decide upon which side of the “form is temporary, class is permanent” divide his recent goals fall.
If he is backed, he must be backed fully, and the Drogba era will be well and truly over. Torres is a very different striker, the spearhead to the Ivorian’s battering ram, and adjustments in style would need to be made accordingly.
But, having seen what having a man like the 34-year-old up front can mean in recent weeks, Chelsea may well not want to suddenly put their eggs in a different basket. The Ivorian’s departure means his sizable wage packet is free to lavish on a more physical striker to more directly replace him.
There are notable candidates who would surely all be willing to come if finances were in order, all of whom may look favourably upon a chance to play in the Champions League rather than the Europa League if they stay where they are.
Athletic Bilbao’s Fernando Llorente could be the archetypal towering target, with the hints of technical excellence that mark him out as a member of the Spain side. Radamel Falcao of Atletico Madrid would represent an evolution from Drogba, being an outright goal machine less reliant on his physical domination though still being strong and able to hold the ball up. And Napoli’s Edinson Cavani personifies commitment up front as well as boasting fiendish finishing ability.
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The signing of either of the three would be a clear sign of a desire to develop the Drogba blueprint, and the recruitment of either would almost certainly require the departure of Torres, unless an unfashionable 4-4-2 system was employed. The Spaniard’s recent selection gripes may have been unwarranted but he is right to expect to start if he stays, given the investment made in him.
His exit would be testament to Drogba’s legacy – that, for all the debate over the past 18 months over which of the two should be first choice, the Ivorian could potentially force Torres out of the side by quitting it.
But whatever his impact on Chelsea’s future, Drogba will be remembered as one of the key men of Chelsea's past.
Three Premier League trophies, four FA Cups, two League Cups, a Champions League, 157 goals in 341 games, nine of which came in tournament finals – there is no way to fully replace the man more synonymous than anyone with the Blues’ journey to the top table of world football.