Didier Drogba: The Chelsea striker is simply unplayable
00:49 GMT, 18 May 2012
A small door off the players' changing room at Wembley Stadium leads to a place known as the warm-up area. It was there, before the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur on April 15, that Didier Drogba put on his trainers and went through his usual pre-match exercise routine. Nothing special. Stretches. An acceleration programme. It wasn't what he was doing that caught the eye. It was what he looked like doing it.
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Hot shot: Dider Drogba scores the first goal in 5-1 demolition of Tottenham
When they returned to play the FA Cup final against Liverpool on May 5, it was a similar story. Another show of strength, another Drogba goal, another victory.
'Some players don't understand when to raise their game,' said Chelsea first-team coach Eddie Newton. 'Didier does. He can really take it to the level needed. Emotionally, you see the difference, the step up. You see the look in his eyes. Quite literally, he changes, and you know he's ready for it.'
This is the man Chelsea are ready to unleash in the Allianz Arena on Saturday night. Unplayable, Jamie Carragher called him, and that is not a description afforded to too many footballers; even those at the pinnacle of their powers.
Shane Warne was unplayable; Muttiah Muralitharan was unplayable; the West Indies fast bowling attack of the Seventies was unplayable. One man, armed only with a cricket bat, could not repel them. A football team have 11 on the pitch, however, and no equivalent of a terror track or sticky wicket. There are ways and means of stopping even the greatest talent. Man-for-man marking, doubling up, cutting the supply line; particularly in the Champions League this season, Chelsea's defence have proved that even the greatest can be frustrated by a combination of raw determination, doggedness and good tactical thought. Yet Drogba is different. Carragher listed him as one of two players who, at their best, are impossible to exclude from a game (Thierry Henry is the other). Having faced Drogba more than any other English defender, he would know.
Carragher has lined up against Drogba 24 times in all competitions and is rightly proud of his record. Chelsea have won 10, Liverpool eight, with six drawn. Drogba has scored eight goals, one every three matches, which certainly compares strikingly to his record against Arsenal (won 10, drawn three, lost one, goals 13).
'As a defender, if a player scores against me, I usually think there is something I could have done,' said Carragher. 'Even if it's Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney, I'll identify a position I could have taken up, I'll think I could have got tighter or dropped off, I'll identify the flaw that let them in.
Good shape: Drogba keeps himself fit
'The only different ones are Drogba and Henry. You replay a goal and, sometimes, there was nothing that could be done. If Chelsea get the ball on to Drogba's chest on the edge of the box and he can bring it down and turn, well, that's it. You can't get round him without fouling him, it's too late to get in front of him, you just have to hope he misses the shot. The same if he leaves you behind to go one on one with the goalkeeper.
'He's not Usain Bolt, but he's fast enough and so powerful that, even if you catch him, you can't get a foot in to make the tackle. You would have to run around him and you haven't the time to do that. So he's unplayable. In certain positions, there is literally nothing you can do.'
Bayern Munich will remember Drogba well from their last meeting, a Champions League quarter-final in 2005.
Chelsea progressed, having won the first leg 4-2 and led the second leg 2-1 until two Munich goals in injury time made the scoreline a respectable 6-5 defeat. Drogba scored home and away and imposed his presence on the German side remorselessly.
There is concern the same could happen in Munich, with Holger Badstuber, Bayern's left-sided and most rugged centre half, missing through suspension. Injuries have also taken a toll, meaning coach Jupp Heynckes is likely to turn to a holding midfield player, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, in Badstuber's place.
Blues brothers: Lampard (centre) celebrates with his Chelsea team mates
When Barcelona tried a similar ploy in the semi-final first leg this year, using Javier Mascherano, Chelsea won and Drogba scored. Tymoshchuk is no fool, the most capped Ukrainian player, three times Ukrainian Footballer of the Year, and voted the best international in Ukraine's history as an independent nation, ahead of even Andriy Shevchenko.
He is, however, a midfielder not a centre half and, at less than six foot, no physical match for Drogba in the air. It would be contrary for Chelsea to resist exploiting this very simple advantage tomorrow night.
Particularly as Drogba's main supply line remains undiminished by the rash of suspensions incurred at the Nou Camp. Juan Mata is the most helpful player to Chelsea's goalscorers this season, but Drogba's special relationship is with a member of the old guard, Lampard. Terry says that bond is stronger now than ever.
'There was a game recently and I can remember remarking to Frank about it because they just have this unbelievable understanding,' Terry explained. 'Year after year, the way they play together gets better and better. The moment Frank gets the ball you see Didier dropping into a position to receive the pass and you know Frank is already seeking him out.
Up for it: Drogba celebrates his goal against Liverpool
'Didier is so unselfish like that, there is nobody better at making himself available, nobody better at holding the ball up, yet he still finds the time to get in behind the defence for that through ball. And he can play – I mean really play. I don't think there is a better striker in the world on his day and he commands such respect from all the players.
'What he does, it doesn't just happen. He works hard at the gym, he puts extra time in at training on free-kicks. You see young lads who want to be like him, or Frank, but they don't want to put in the same time and effort. He wasn't born this way, he delivers an incredible amount of work to do it, but when you see how he seizes the moment in big games, it's worth it.
'William Gallas is a top centre half, but did you see what Didier did to him when we were playing Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final That is what I meant when I said I knew we weren't going to lose.
'He goes into his pre-match routine and he gets more and more pumped up and you know he's in the zone. When we played Barcelona, when we played Liverpool at Wembley, he just gives everyone around him such confidence. He'll come through his ritual and then you can't even speak to him. You can see in his face, he's gone.'
Drogba's other pre-match charm is the presence of Stephane Renaud, an expert in fasciatherapy, a form of alternative manipulation focusing on soft tissue.
Hands up: Drogba gets into the zone before big matches
Renaud, who also treats Florent Malouda this way, can always be seen with Drogba before major matches, despite having links with French club Dijon FCO.
A controversial figure in France, with Dijon on the brink of relegation, Renaud is closely associated with Dijon coach Patrice Carteron, but is always available to nurse Drogba using special massage techniques designed to increase circulation and lymphatic drainage while stimulating the stretch reflex of muscles.
This is a form of fasciatherapy known as myofascial release and, to laymen, can best be explained as a branch of osteopathy. Due to its alternative nature, opinion on its worth is divided, but Drogba invests in the method greatly and Renaud is expected to join him in Munich before tomorrow's match, despite Dijon's present difficulties.
Roberto Di Matteo, the Chelsea interim manager, is convinced this dedication and attention to detail is having a positive effect in prolonging Drogba's career. Incredibly, tomorrow's final may be his last game for the club, with his contract due to expire this summer. Recent performances, however, suggest he remains as potent as at any time in his career, and Di Matteo appeared to hint at wider issues when asked about Drogba's future.
Brave: Drogba is willing to put his body on the line
'He's physically in good shape,' said the interim manager. 'He played the Africa Cup of Nations in January, too. He keeps himself fit, he lives a very professional life and, when you do that, your career can be as long as you want. We've had other examples of players going deep into their thirties, so his future at Chelsea is not a question of age.'
More likely, it is a question of wage. Money and length of contract are issues that tend to concern executives once a player hits a certain milestone, and Drogba turned 34 in March.
Having first been linked to a financially rewarding, professionally unfulfilling move to the Chinese league – following his team-mate Nicolas Anelka – there is now talk of offers that will fit both criteria, most strikingly the possibility of a bid from Barcelona. The Catalan side know only too well the energising impact Drogba can have on a game, and a club.
'When players look around a dressing room, they want to see players they know they can rely on,' Newton added.
'See fear, and you get a completely different feeling. Didier inspires confidence.
'He is a very charismatic figure, he reminds me of Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane, the great leaders, the ones who knew how to step up to a big game. Didier is like that – he knows when it matters.
'People think bravery is just flying into a tackle or putting your head in but bravery is also accepting the ball under pressure, being prepared to take an opponent on, wanting to be involved all the time in a big game – the best players are not afraid to take responsibility, no matter the pressure.
'You look at how often Didier plays up front as one against two – he's outnumbered all the time. If he takes a hit from the first defender and rides it, he knows there's another hit coming. The physical battering he's taken for so long, yet still keeps going – that's true bravery. He deserves every accolade that he gets.'
Curious rivalry: Jamie Carragher says Drogba is unplayable on the pitch but very friendly off it
So, having followed Drogba through his pre-match rituals, from the warm-up area back into the dressing room, what is it actually like to meet him, in the tunnel, face to face What is it like to confront him as a member of the opposition in that zone of utter focus and determination And now it gets strange. For, according to Carragher, he is the opposite of what one might expect.
'Really nice,' the Liverpool man says. 'Just very, very friendly. Ridiculous, really. He wants to be your mate, so much so that you think it can only be a bluff. I'm the opposite, really intense, because that's how we were brought up by Gerard Houllier. He'd have gone berserk if he saw us chatting to the opposition before a game. He told us to shake hands after, but until then, it's war.
'Then you get Drogba, wanting to have a joke and you can't work it out. You wonder if it's a mind game, if he wants the defender to think he's his friend so he goes soft on him, and the first time he did it, I thought it would all change the moment the match started, but it didn't. He carries on just the same.
'If the play stops, he wants a chat. If your team are winning, it doesn't seem to faze him. Maybe that is why he is a player of extremes. He doesn't seem to have too many average matches – he's either great or it's a nightmare, one day he is unstoppable, the next he doesn't quite seem interested. He does everything or nothing, and you never know what you'll get.
'And that's the strength in his game, too. He is a very good footballer but he's also so powerful that Chelsea can be direct if they wish. He allows them to play two entirely different ways.
Hard to handle: Drogba was in fearsome form against Liverpool
'I watch the athletics sometimes, and the commentator will be talking about a guy running a good tactical race, and I don't understand that. If the other guy is faster he's going to win, tactics won't come into it. And that is what happens against Drogba sometimes.
'You can make all the best plans, but then he'll do something to which you have no answer at all. And you'll never have an answer. He's just bigger, or faster, or harder to manoeuvre. And that is the way it will always be.
'Early in the season, 2006, we were playing them at Stamford Bridge and it was a really tight game, as usual. We'd got into their heads a bit under Jose Mourinho with the Champions League the year before and we'd already beaten them in the Community Shield that season.
'So very few chances either way, it's just before half-time, it's all going well. And Michael Essien plays this long ball in to Drogba on the edge of the penalty area. He pops it up with his chest, turns and hits this left-foot half-volley that's in the net before Pepe Reina's even seen it. And I watched it again, and I could watch it a hundred times more and I know Alan Hansen says every goal is somebody's mistake, but I'll tell you what I could have done to stop it: nothing.
'And Bayern Munich know that, too. And that's what makes him…' Join in the chorus, you know the words by now. 'Unplayable.'