Monday, January 24, 2011
Drogba proves to be Lofthouse's heir
Richard Jolly, Reebok Stadium
This was supposed to be all about one centre-forward. The souvenir programme was the commemoration of a career, the immaculately observed minute's silence a small acknowledgement of a huge contribution.
But Chelsea, at their finest, exhibit a ruthless lack of sentimentality and the celebration of Nat Lofthouse's life was promptly hijacked by a more recent Wanderer, Nicolas Anelka, and his bruising sidekick, Didier Drogba.
There is an aptness to that. In any era, an aggressive, able target man has a role to play. Lofthouse's powers of intimidation made him the premier battering ram of his day. The best part of six decades later, that mantle has passed to Drogba.
Admittedly, the comparison is inexact. Lofthouse may have caused an injury or two, but he didn't feign it and Drogba was serenaded with chants of "cheat" at the Reebok Stadium; while Bolton's greatest player was booked just once in more than 500 games, to borrow Sir Alex Ferguson's description of Dennis Wise, Drogba could start a fight in an empty room.
He has been tried and convicted on video evidence. Black-and-white pictures captured only a fraction of Lofthouse's greatest deeds, all performed when the maximum wage was only £20 a week and teams were automatically configured in the WM formation.
But while Bolton's late great may have been at risk of many things during his years coalmining, malaria wasn't one of them. It sapped Drogba's strength but he is regaining his power and, with it, Chelsea their momentum. On a ground where they clinched their first title since Lofthouse's day six years ago, the champions' swagger returned. Suddenly they were reminiscent of past powers. Jose Mourinho's team of 2005 had an enviable resolve to subdue, suppress and impose themselves, Carlo Ancelotti's side of last summer the capacity to turn victory into a rout.
Both were evident. A first away win in three months came at Chelsea's home from home, an eighth successive victory at the Reebok featuring goals from each of Chelsea's front trio, augmented by Ramires' first in blue.
"Finally Didier Drogba played a fantastic match, scored a fantastic goal but that is not the only reason to be happy tonight," said Ancelotti. "[Nicolas] Anelka scored, [Florent] Malouda scored and for a long time they could not score. Their power and personality is very important for this team."
Drogba is one of its alpha males and his swerving, unstoppable shot from 33 yards dipped beneath Jussi Jaaskelainen's bar. "You could have put two goalkeepers in and they still wouldn't have saved it such was the movement of the ball," said Owen Coyle. It was a wonderful strike from a player who can be the barometer of Chelsea's mood.
Indeed, there is an obvious a knock-on effect. Malouda's finest form tends to coincide with his close friend's purple patches. Five minutes before half-time, the Frenchman steered a shot in at the second attempt from an acute angle to double Chelsea's lead
It was trebled when Drogba got a touch to redirect Michael Essien's low cross into the path of Anelka, who finished with composure against his former club. If anything, Anelka's mid-season decline seemed starker than Drogba's - there was no ailment to explain it - but a sharpness is returning to his game.
Indeed, it was Anelka whose shot was blocked before Ramires slotted in, before being buried by a host of delighted team-mates. The Brazilian's midfield partner Essien brought dynamism while Ashley Cole spent so much time on the overlap the left-back seemed to be rebranding himself as a winger.
It was a sign the confidence is back. "We have turned the corner with very good football, good attitude, good mentality," added Ancelotti. Coyle, meanwhile, felt that Bolton's wounds were self-inflicted and lamented the narrow margins. "I certainly never envisaged that outcome," he added.
Because even in an ultimately emphatic win, there are turning points. Petr Cech was at full stretch to tip Matt Taylor's precise header away and then stuck out a hand to turn Johan Elmander's improvised overhead kick past the post.
The Swede is Bolton's modern-day No. 9 but a spiritual successor to "the Lion of Vienna" may be the dreadlocked destroyer who defeated Bolton.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Didier Drogba - Is it too simplistic to say that when Drogba plays well, so do Chelsea? This was certainly an occasion when the Ivorian served as the inspiration, leading from the front.
BOLTON VERDICT: They have now only taken one point from five games and a bright start to the season is giving way to a descent into mid-table. Coyle has rarely rotated his team which brought understanding initially but now means too many are tiring. The worry is that the recent recruit David Wheater, who was an unused substitute, was bought to replace Gary Cahill, not partner him.
CHELSEA VERDICT: This was a display of force, fortitude and footballing ability which was all the more impressive as Frank Lampard, a frequent scourge of Bolton, was injured. Play like this and they are very much in the title race. The concern, however, is that the squad is threadbare. Ancelotti's bench shows they are particularly susceptible to injury; were a couple more sidelined, their crown could be surrendered swiftly.