By Liam Twomey
As Didier Drogba wheeled away into the outstretched arms of Petr Cech having put an end to eight years of hurt and an astonishing night of drama at the Allianz Arena back in May, he did so with the euphoric realisation not only that his club had finally fulfilled a long-held dream, but also that he would forever be remembered at the centre of it.
For Drogba, perhaps more than anyone, lived Chelsea’s journey to the Champions League title – from shame and humiliation in Moscow in 2008 to rage against the machine against Barcelona in 2009 and, finally, redemption and joy in Munich – and so it was fitting that its end coincided with his tearful departure from Stamford Bridge.
Now a bright new era has begun. Over £80 million has been spent on a new wave of young and largely attacking talent, as the Blues seek to transform themselves into a team which wins hearts and minds as well as trophies. Roman Abramovich’s attitude appears to be: ‘We’ve won it all once. Now let’s do it again, but do it right this time.’
Yet of course winning does, and will always, remain at the heart of the Russian’s philosophy. A catalogue of P45s bearing the names of some of the world’s most revered managers highlights his staunch refusal to countenance second-best, and only the foolish or those ignorant of recent history might believe Roberto Di Matteo can rely on past glories if this proves a disappointing campaign.
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In Eden Hazard, Oscar, Marko Marin and Victor Moses, he has been handed a far greater wealth of resources to achieve his objective. The Belgian has already shown signs he can become a superstar at Stamford Bridge, while the other three will undoubtedly be given plenty of opportunities to make their own mark on the Chelsea revolution.
For now, the project appears to be largely on course. The Blues sit top of the Premier League after reasonably convincing victories over Wigan, Reading and Newcastle and despite a lacklustre draw with QPR on Saturday. While a Uefa Super Cup mauling by a Falcao-inspired Atletico Madrid provided a serious warning against unbridled optimism, it is clear progress is being made.
If further success at the top end of the Premier League and Champions League is to follow, however, more is required. The new Chelsea generation possess quality in abundance but, with Drogba gone and Frank Lampard and John Terry beginning to show their age, fresh leaders must be found.
All three veterans played critical roles in the Blues’ miraculous European triumph. Terry marshalled his defence with trademark courage and assurance against Napoli and Benfica before his foolish dismissal against Barcelona. Lampard created and scored at crucial moments and played with maturity and discipline in the final, while Drogba’s goals dragged them to the trophy.
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The big Ivorian was not simply the finest target man of the modern era. He was also the archetypal ‘man for the big occasion’, scoring nine goals in as many cup finals. He netted six times in the Champions League run, and almost all were crucial – two against Valencia to ensure progression from the group stage, the first of the comeback against Napoli in the last 16, the winner at home to Barcelona in the semi-finals, and that dramatic late equaliser against Bayern in the final.
Goals can be replaced, but the ability to deliver when it matters most is a much rarer quality. In the absence of any other experienced options, it is Fernando Torres, slowly emerging from a devastating and prolonged crisis of confidence, who has been anointed by the club – and by Drogba himself – as the Ivorian’s worthiest successor.
The re-modelling of Chelsea’s attack has already prompted the Spaniard to show glimpses of the class of old, but a tepid performance and petulant reaction to being substituted at Loftus Road on Saturday highlights the fragility of his progress, just as the eventual result laid bare the club’s desperate need for him to consistently be the man they paid £50 million for over 18 months ago.
Only time will tell if Torres can be the talisman Chelsea need, but he will get his first big opportunity on the stage on which Drogba forged his legacy.
The Blues begin their Champions League defence against Juventus on Wednesday night and, as the Stamford Bridge faithful file in by the thousand to witness the spectacle, they will be hoping to have a new hero to cheer.
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