Stamford Bridge had to wait until just after the hour for Didier Drogba to signal his return. The Ivorian emerged from his customary autumn hibernation away from the group stage of this competition, a legacy of misdemeanours sparked by elimination the previous year, to face Spartak Moscow. With their talisman restored, Chelsea’s latest pursuit of this trophy feels as if it is gathering pace.This was a gentle welcome back, lacking the emotion of the visit of Internazionale in March that had seen Drogba rake his boot down Thiago Motta’s achilles to prompt a red card. Three campaigns in a row have begun with a ban, not a bang.
The fever that kept him out of the trip to Moscow having subsided, Drogba eased his way back in here, stirring midway through the second half to ensure his side’s passage into the knock-out phase.
He had been drifting somewhat in the early stages of the half, before he snapped awake to induce Evgeni Makeev’s foul in the area after 61 minutes. The penalty was dispatched comfortably for a 32nd goal in 61 Champions League appearances. Moments later it was Drogba’s free-kick that was headed down and in by Branislav Ivanovic to add gloss to the scoreline. In truth, Drogba’s display – occasionally almost uninterested, at other times alert and productive – summed up his campaign to date.
If there has been a vague criticism of the forward this season it would be of his apparent desire to supply rather than score. Selflessness is rarely cause for concern but at times, when Chelsea have been strolling against the lesser lights in the Premier League, Drogba has meandered out of the centre and sought to present team-mates with opportunities. It is as if scoring has become too easy, as if he considers the goals to be somewhat devalued.
That should hardly constitute an annoyance. Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka have benefited – the Ivorian’s lay-off for the latter at Ewood Park on Saturday was immaculate – and Frank Lampard’s absence has gone relatively unnoticed with his goals being supplied by others in this supremely effective team. The manager sees the value in Drogba’s assists.
“He is a striker, but I think he has always shown unselfish behaviour on the pitch,” said Carlo Ancelotti.
Yet, on a humdrum occasion such as this it would have been refreshing for Drogba to rampage again, his focus fixed solely upon swelling his own tally as it was on the season’s opening day, against West Bromwich Albion. There had only been three goals since that hat-trick before last night, including his customary score against Arsenal. The sight of Drogba at his best generates its own drama. This return to European competition had offered a platform.
There were hints of urgency in his first-half performance. Chelsea’s better opportunities, Alex’s horrible miss from a yard out aside, had generally been provided by their captain, though Drogba had rather scuffed Yuri Zhirkov’s early free-kick and then seen Andriy Dykan block a near-post attempt. His free header over the bar from Zhirkov’s corner was wasteful. More impressive was his collection of Mikel John Obi’s punt, barging a passage between Nicolas Pareja and Aleksandr Sheshukov before Dykan stifled his shot.
Thereafter, frustration threatened to set in and he was rather overshadowed by Anelka’s slickly taken goal – his fifth in four Champions League games – before he roused himself. Ancelotti had pointed to the positive impact the Ivorian can make on this competition if he can keep his temper. Feistier nights lie ahead; for now, Drogba will be content to be back.