Ancelotti: Drogba can be the best
This time last year, Chelsea striker Didier Drogba was in the midst of a miserably long sulk that gave his army of critics plenty of fresh ammunition to fire in his direction.
With niggling injuries and a dip in form afflicting the Ivory Coast powerhouse, Nicolas Anelka snatched his chance to establish himself as first-choice striker in a Chelsea side that was, in the first few weeks, purring in ominous fashion under the guidance of Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Bench warming was a pastime Drogba was never likely to tolerate, so he embarked on what can only be described as a semi-strike. Sure, he turned up and played on the rare occasions when Scolari picked him, but the player who was strutting/limping through the first half of last season was an impostor compared to the dominant figure who struck fear into the hearts of all opponents in the years before.
Amid suggestions in the media that he had lost his passion for the sport, Drogba's days as a football giant appeared to be winding towards an unsatisfactory conclusion, with an exit from Chelsea in the January transfer window seemingly inevitable until an unexpected turn of events exposed his folly.
To a large extent, Drogba's woefully below-par performance in Chelsea's comprehensive 3-0 defeat against Manchester United last January prompted club chief Roman Abramovich to usher Scolari out of the door and, since that fateful moment, the Chelsea No.11 has not looked back.
It didn't say much for Drogba's temperamental professionalism that he suddenly burst back into life the moment Guus Hiddink burst through the entrance doors at Stamford Bridge, with his performance level instantly skipping up a couple of levels to the point where he ended the season as a goalscoring hero in the FA Cup Final.
Even though his extravagant outburst following Chelsea's Champions League semi-final exit at the hands Barcelona was a little over the top, it served to confirm his desire to succeed had returned and now we find ourselves pondering whether the destiny of this season's Premier League title race lies in Drogba's hands.
Such a claim may be bold so early in the campaign, but the form and passion the big striker has shown in the first few weeks of the season has proved that this 31-year-old remains a force no opponent can handle when he puts his mind entirely on his task.
As both a maker and taker of chances, few strikers in the world game can rival Drogba and Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti confirms as much. "We have seen what Didier brings to this team in the first games of our season and this is why I said he was irreplaceable when I came to Chelsea," states the two-time Champions League winning coach. "Defenders cannot stop him because he has so much strength. On more than one occasion this season, we have seen Didier emerge as the player who can change a game and this is why I believe he will be one of the big players for us in the months ahead.
"People talk about his age and see it as a problem, but Drogba is the type of player who can go on for a long time. His pace is not his greatest asset, so he can still play at the top for many more years. He is still improving and can become the best striker in the game in the next couple of years.
"Drogba is already one of the top forwards in the world. You look at Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Drogba as the best in the game. I would also say Didier is the most complete striker I have had the chance to work with."
Considering the physical advantages Drogba displays as he shrugs off a rival as if they are a lower weight division, it makes his determination to spend so much of the game rolling around in desperate and generally brief agony all the more frustrating.
Having watched as he did his worst against both Tottenham and Liverpool in recent weeks, helping his side to vital wins and still insisting on tarnishing his image with childish dramatics that would not win him any Oscar nominations, it does not make great viewing.
Showing great touch and control for a man of such stature and often displaying an ability to rough up the toughest of defenders, Drogba then allows himself to be lured into dark arts of play-acting with too much ease. He has taken diving to levels that not even an Olympic springboard champ would dream up and the trouble is, he is not very convincing at either the fall or the delayed trauma that inevitably follows.
At one point in the Tottenham game, there was a lengthy debate on the Chelsea bench as to whether Drogba's umpteenth 'injury' of the day was going to end his participation in the game. In the end, he created such a scene that the wounded soldier was carried off in agony for what turned out to be that career-threatening affliction - cramp. Spurs boss Harry Redknapp could only chuckle at his antics when quizzed in the press conference that followed.
Then, against Liverpool, Drogba's own captain was forced to drag him off the floor and mouth something to the effect of 'don't let them think you are injured'. In essence, John Terry was trying to humiliate Drogba back onto his feet and it worked a treat as he ended up being Chelsea's match-winner.
Ancelotti refuses to be drawn on the one aspect of Drogba's game that ensures he will never be loved by English fans, with his positive rhetoric clearly designed to draw the best out of a striker who looks certain to be his trump card this season.
"The questions when I arrived at Chelsea were all surrounding whether Drogba and Terry would stay," continues the Italian. "Well both are still here and they remain vital men to this team and the club in general.
"This Chelsea team is full of dominant characters and I see that as a positive. When you have so many leaders in one team, you know one will stand up at the important moment and we have seen that with Drogba many times already this season. The captain Terry is the top leader at Chelsea, obviously, but Drogba has the effect of pulling his team with him on the field.
"Didier has criticism from people who say he is a prima donna, but the difference between this type of character and a leader is always so very small. You need to be confident and willing to pull people with you before becoming a general."
Few would argue with Ancelotti's sentiments, so it is such a shame that this star, who will light up the World Cup stages of South Africa next summer, never receives the plaudits his talents may well merit. If he stays on his feet a little more for the rest of this season, Drogba may not only finish with medals aplenty in his back pocket, but also the personal acclaim he has long craved.