Ten months ago Didier Drogba almost single-handedly fired Chelsea into the Champions League Final. Judging by the striker’s display against Juventus he could do it again this season.
Chelsea fans have waited a long time to see the Ivory Coast international show the kind of form that proved too hot for Liverpool to handle in the semi-final last April.
Of course, it is no coincidence that manager Luiz Felipe Scolari’s departure has been the catalyst for Drogba’s transformation into a world beater once again for the Blues.
The striker didn’t have the best of relationships with the Brazilian and was often left on the bench by the former coach.
Scolari would argue that Drogba didn’t help matters with his attitude and he has, indeed, proved a complex and difficult individual ever since joining from Marseille in 2004.
However, while his antics may not
win him any popularity contests, Drogba’s presence on the pitch will always seem to give Chelsea a better chance of winning.
Italian teams are, by reputation, at their best when defending and, yet in the first 45 minutes, the 30-year-old made the Juventus back four look like frightened novices.
He is still lacking in match fitness as was demonstrated by a quieter second-half showing, but the striker is confident he will be back to his best in three weeks, which will be great timing should Chelsea successfully negotiate a tricky second leg in Turin.
It could have been made easier if Drogba had taken all three and not just one of the great chances that came his way in the opening 16 minutes.
He sent a header from Jose Bosingwa’s cross just over the bar and also failed to connect properly from Frank Lampard’s corner despite being unmarked six yards out.
Those misses sandwiched an emphatic finish in the 12th minute when he was played in neatly by Salomon Kalou and he blasted the ball past goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Chelsea‘s new manager Guus Hiddink celebrated in excited fashion on the sidelines, not that he was looking to take much credit for the player’s improved performance afterwards. He said: “There has not been one player that I have had to motivate.
“If I had to motivate a player, then I think I start fighting with him or neglecting him, generally speaking. I have not had this problem at all with Drogba.
“From the first day I was here, he enjoyed training and worked hard. He worked hard against Aston Villa and again last night. So I don’t have any problems with under-motivated players.”
What Hiddink does have a problem with is the lack of fitness not only with Drogba but the whole squad. They faded in the 1-0 win against Villa and did so again last night, which Juventus couldn’t quite exploit.
Hiddink has stepped up training since he took over last week but the hangover from Scolari’s reign and his failure to conduct intense sessions, will take time to cure. Drogba is all too aware that Chelsea are below the high standards they have set in the past and when asked why, he was unable to explain.
He said: “I don’t know. You would have to ask the fitness coach, not me.
“I think we feel it, all of us on the pitch. That’s why we put in a bit more effort to help each other. As you could see it was difficult for us to get the ball from our side to their half. We know this, that’s why we were doing everything we could to not concede.”
Hiddink isn’t looking to blame anyone, yet is worried that it could cost his new side in the future.
He said: “One of the things I can say is that we are not top top’ in terms of fitness. The physical level is good but in these high-level games you must be more than top. If you lose these balls you have to work even harder to get the ball back and that wastes energy.
“I am satisfied with a narrow 1-0 win but overall I am not satisfied. When you can’t maintain control in the whole game it is a problem.
“You can’t control everything for 90 minutes but you should be able to control 90 per cent of the game.”
Fitness aside, at least Chelsea‘s discipline will have impressed Hiddink since only Michael Ballack picked up a yellow card while Claudio Marchisio, Cristian Molinaro and Momo Sissoko were cautioned for Juve.
But credit has to go to Juventus too and their boss Claudio Ranieri, who on his return to Stamford Bridge received a louder reception than Hiddink, even though it was the Dutchman’s first outing in front of the home fans.
He also had Alessandro Del Piero showing some sublime skills and it was his shot in the 22nd minute that came closest to netting an equalizer, only for keeper Petr Cech to tip it wide.
Juventus dominated the second half to such an extent they will approach the second leg with confidence.
Ranieri said: “It will be difficult but we are not raising the white flag. It’s more complicated now but we are going to really go for it. Buffon said that it is our best against an English side.”
And Lampard also warned his team-mates they face a huge battle in the second leg. He said: “Juventus are a team of great history and when we go there, the atmosphere will be huge.”