Luiz Felipe Scolari always insisted that his squad could not stretch to accommodate both Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka in Chelsea's starting XI. Although the Brazilian indicated in the days before his dismissal that the January signing of Ricardo Quaresma would provide the width needed for a 4-4-2, he never had the chance to prove it before he was replaced by Guus Hiddink.
Now, with the Dutchman in the hot-seat, we could be about to witness something special. The forbidden fruit that is the Drogba-Anelka partnership is about to ripen, and it could have a significant bearing on Chelsea's performance from now until the summer.
There are no major barriers standing in the way of the union – Drogba has finally unshackled himself from the chains of injury, suspension and, two bosses on, the memory of Jose Mourinho – but can the duo combine to kick-start the Blues' three-trophy chase?
They Blues They've Sung
You don't have to utter much more than 'Didier Drogba' to evoke his achievements in the Blue shirt. He has been synonymous with the very notion of Chelsea, along with Petr Cech, Frank Lampard and John Terry, in recent years, making a huge impact at Stamford Bridge since his £23.8 million move from Marseille in 2004. The brooding Ivorian is a nightmare for defenders due to his strength, athleticism, deadly touch around the box and, it must be said, his gamesmanship. He was a perfect foil for ex-boss Mourinho and was gutted when the 'Special One' departed, and has yet to fully get over it.
With the top Drog struggling to overcome knee problems, journeyman Anelka was signed from Bolton Wanderers to provide cover at a time when Avram Grant was at the helm. Although his £15 million price-tag hardly made him a cheap replacement, Drogba was nevertheless expected to rule the roost when he returned. The French international did a decent job for the remainder of the 2007-08 season to plug gaps in the Blues' attack, but it was indeed Drogba who spearheaded Chelsea's late renaissance last term. They came within a whisker of pipping Manchester United to the title before the Red Devils beat them to the Champions League trophy via a penalty shoot-out.
Scolari was brought in over the summer and crock Drogba went off the rails, mentally and physically. Anelka, though, has exploded this season and, just past the halfway point, has 20 goals to his name in all competitions. Hiddink sat in the Vicarage Road stands at the weekend with supremo Roman Abramovich and chief executive Peter Kenyon in the stands. Drogba and Anelka played 90 minutes together, with the latter scoring a hat-trick, paving the way for an extended run.
So what now?
Good Cop, Bad Cop
Even while Anelka has been banging them in, one always felt as though he was chasing the ghost of Drogba – the fit, deadly and focussed Drogba of yore that is. Now, present day Drogba, the one with a question mark on his shirt instead of a number, is hoping to grab onto Nico's coat-tails in order to hitch a ride back to the top of his game.
We all know that Drogba is a quality player, but it's unclear as to whether he'd be able to reach his Mourinho-era performance levels without tapping some of Anelka's momentum. For all his coy talk of formations, Scolari knew this, but decided that the Frenchman could do it on his own.
Okay, it's not ideal to have both of these players playing together, as they are fairly similar. However, they're both intelligent enough strikers and have shown fleetingly that they can complement each other. More importantly, hey should have no problems coexisting due to their personalities.
The more assertive Drogba is said to still wield great influence around Stamford Bridge and his name has been strongly linked with the group of players alleged to have assassinated Scolari behind-the-scenes. All the while, and as we speak, the more submissive Anelka has been desperate to play with Drogba and has never seen him as a threat. It makes more sense for Drogba to play behind and link up with Lampard in order to feed Le Sulk, but Anelka has stated his desire to play off Drogs. Tellingly, Anelka noted that "we" - he and Drogba - had scored three goals after his weekend hat-trick, and probably gave the match ball and a bottle of champagne to his favourite team-mate.
Perhaps Drogba will use the gentle Frenchman as a stepping stone towards the No.1 striker position again. Perhaps he'd be happy to simply see more playing time and contribute for the greater good. What's certain, though, is that in the short term, following all the hype, debate and controversy, these two players will be desperate to back up their words with action and are sure to form one of the most unselfish attacking partnerships of all time.
Chelsea surged last season under Grant and, with Drogba and Anelka up top, I wouldn't put it past the Blues to do the same under Hiddink.
Greg Ptolomey, Goal.com