By George Ankers
His 84 minute display was superb, but just 10 seconds of Chelsea’s 5-1 thrashing of Tottenham should stand as enough proof that Roberto Di Matteo must start Didier Drogba against Barcelona on Wednesday.
The moment came shortly before the interval. The Blues had just survived a pair of let-offs at the back as Rafael van der Vaart had had a header cleared off the line and a delicious cross had just evaded Emmanuel Adebayor before striking the post. It had been a cagey opening, but if anyone was going to break the deadlock it was Spurs.
Then, John Terry launched a long ball forward, as a method of pressure relief more than attacking intent. Drogba took control with his back to goal, held off William Gallas, flicked it out to his left in a move that seemed to take him away from a threatening position, a notion he dispelled immediately with a dexterous swivel and superb shot past Carlo Cudicini.
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|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY
GOAL!!!! Big-game player Didier Drogba puts Chelsea ahead. Gallas is at fault but it is a cracker of a goal by the big striker. Terry's long ball is brought down superbly by Drogba, and as he turns and sprints away from Gallas, he half-volleys an excellent effort past Cudicini on his left foot from just outside the box, The goalkeeper's been beaten at his near post by the sheer power of that effort.
Much has been made of Torres’ recent upturn in form, but all of it centres around its gradual nature. His work-rate, build-up play – smart crosses from the right wing, even. His goal to round off Chelsea’s Premier League win at Aston Villa was an encouraging sign of instinct slowly returning, but slowly is clearly the operative word.
The Spaniard is still finding his feet again and carries a visible nervousness in front of the net. His talents are known but there is absolutely zero sense that he is on the verge of an explosive, game-changing moment of brilliance of the kind that Drogba produced at Wembley.
That is the key. Picking weaknesses in this totemic, era-defining Barcelona outfit may seem like pointing out a shred of unripped shirt on the sleeve of the Incredible Hulk, but the aura of impregnability in their defence has waned, and must be targeted by a genuinely threatening striker if any side is to profit against them.
If Drogba starts on Wednesday, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol et al will be aware that his powers could flare at any moment. That lingering menace creates uncertainty which can be exploited.
He may not be as mobile as he once was, but Chelsea’s bastionary battering ram has proved yet again that he can produce on the big occasion. It is a lesson already learned once this season when he blasted the Blues past Valencia in the crucial final game of the Champions League group stage.
As his age advances, Drogba’s involvement across a whole season is of course decreasing, but it is for games like Wednesday’s for which Di Matteo must save him. It is a policy which should continue into next year.
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Daniel Sturridge also hopes to grow into a central role and that is an option that should be looked at as well, but he too is not ready to inherit it full-time this summer.
The Blues should be moving to tie Drogba down for at least one more year so that he can continue to provide the class and firepower when they need to be able to count on their striker most, while Torres and Sturridge (and, hopefully, Romelu Lukaku) take on greater responsibility over the course of the campaign.
With Financial Fair Play soon to be an issue, there would be no sense in Chelsea splashing out heavily on a Drogba-level striker, which they would need to do if he left, when they have one still on their books. Why a deal has not been struck yet is baffling, but there is time left to remedy it.
Di Matteo may not be the man in charge come the summer, of course, and his concerns are short-term ones for now, and his decision to take Drogba off for Torres once victory looked assured on Sunday seems to show that he has taken the hint.
Chelsea will have to rely on small moments of magic if they are to somehow edge past Barcelona over two legs, and Didier Drogba is still the man most ready to conjure them.
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