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What if Chelsea had signed Benni McCarthy, not Didier Drogba?

09:00 GMT 31/10/2021
What if Chelsea had signed Benni not Drogba
The Ivorian joined the club in 2004 and attained legendary status in West London but events could have gone differently had the Blues looked elsewhere

Didier Drogba coolly slotting home from the penalty spot to win Chelsea the Champions League on Bayern Munich’s turf in 2012 is widely viewed as the forward’s crowning glory, a moment that engraved his name, alongside other Blues legends, in the club's history. 

It was the most fitting way to leave at the time, after years of ups and downs in West London, and certainly the best way of making up for his dismissal in the 2008 final defeat by Manchester United. 

However, as unusual as it may sound to fans of the five-time Premier League champions, events from 2004 could have played out differently if Jose Mourinho got his preferred choice to lead the line at Chelsea, Benni McCarthy. 

Reminiscing over Drogba’s time at the club between 2004 and 2012, it even seems inconceivable to picture someone else at Stamford Bridge as the forward who took the Premier League by storm after initial difficulties and delivered in so many big games. 

While the two-time African Footballer of the Year is lauded for netting nine cup final goals, his impact wasn’t only limited to those deciders as he also influenced prior rounds, notably the 2008 Champions League semi-final second-leg vs Liverpool, the Round of 16 comeback against Napoli and last four 1-0 first-leg success over Barcelona in 2012. 

Be that as it may, all that may not have happened had McCarthy followed Mourinho to Chelsea after Champions League success in 03/04. 

The Portuguese manager wanted his top striker at Porto joining him in England but the European champions at the time wouldn’t budge. The upshot of the Blue and Whites’ refusal prompted Drogba’s arrival in West London for a then-record fee for an African. 

The Ivorian’s transfer saw Mourinho deliver on his promise to buy the striker when he had the resources but whether the plan was to pair both in attack or purchase either remains unclear. 

Although, the reported move for the South African in the summer 2005 and after an impressive debut season in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers suggests the two-time Champions League-winning coach wanted both forwards partnering in West London. 

“When Mourinho went to Chelsea they came for me, but Porto would not sell, McCarthy revealed to The Athletic. “Then Chelsea came knocking on the door again (after his first season in England). Mourinho wanted me. He’s always wanted me.

"I asked Blackburn if they could sell me. I wanted to play in the Champions League again, to play for Mourinho as he ruffled more feathers in the Premier League. Blackburn said no, which I understand."

Incidentally, it was Drogba who prevented McCarthy from winning the Golden Boot in 2007, outscoring the forward by two goals (20 to 18) to claim the award for the first time, thus becoming the first African to achieve the feat in the English top flight. 

Whether they could have played together is anyone’s guess but the inability to fit the ex-Olympique de Marseille man alongside another out-and-out striker in Andriy Shevchenko indicates a partnership with the 1998 Eredivisie winner may have been unsuccessful. 

Still, an alternate reality in which Mourinho got his way to bring the 2003/04 Portuguese top flight’s top scorer upon joining Chelsea may have prevented him from splurging on Drogba, especially as Roman Abramovich had his doubts about the Ivorian and may have refused to sanction both deals. 

In truth, it’s hard to predict what might have been had the South African spearheaded the Chelsea revolution at Drogba’s expense: would McCarthy have had the Ivorian’s big-game influence at the Bridge and consequently departed the club as a legend?

Would he have dovetailed spectacularly with another revered Blues star Frank Lampard to form the Premier League’s deadliest partnership in the competition’s history? 

The Englishman and West African not only formed part of a spine that also included John Terry and Petr Cech but shared a productive on-field relationship that still stands as the most impressive statistically. 

Drogba’s all-round game was also somewhat superior to McCarthy’s, given the former linked-up better with teammates while the latter was largely a penalty box poacher that was mostly on the receiving end of moves. This is evidenced in their club career assists numbers with the Ivorian having had over a century while the South African didn’t hit the 30-point mark. 

The pair’s goal per game ratio throughout their club careers also makes for interesting reading: the Chelsea legend netted a goal every 2.3 matches while Bafana Bafana’s top marksman scored once every 2.7 games, which points to the Ivorian’s superiority.

This disparity is wider when comparing their international scoring ratios, with the Elephants’ icon netting a goal every 1.6 games as opposed to the South African’s striking every 2.6 matches.

McCarthy, though, will argue that Drogba consistently played with better players in their primes which made it easier to achieve better numbers statistically. 

Nevertheless, and despite the ex-Porto man's recent anecdote, Chelsea supporters hold their man for the big occasions in such high esteem that a narrative without him in their history could be extremely hard to imagine.