By Joe Meloni
There were questions. Oh, were there questions about Didier Drogba’s health entering Saturday’s match with West Bromwich Albion. Following a summer of surgery to repair a broken arm before the World Cup and a second trip to the surgeon to mend a nagging hernia in late July, the fitness of the Ivorian striker changed every pundit’s opinion regarding Chelsea’s chances to defend its Premier League Crown.
Saturday afternoon, we got answers. Oh, did we get answers. Drogba netted three of Chelsea’s markers in its 6-0 laugher against West Brom. Demonstrating the skills responsible for his status as the best Premier League front runner since Thierry Henry, Drogba snuck a first-half free kick through the West Brom wall and past goalkeeper Scott Carson. In the second half, Drogba cleaned up a loose ball in front of the West Brom net with an emphatic left-footed strike before finishing his day with a right-sided blast from distance.
When news of Drogba’s second surgery in three months broke, the prospect of a few months without him made other red flags in Stamford Bridge stand out a little more. John Terry and Frank Lampard transformed from “getting old” to “past their prime.” Petr Cech’s torn calf muscle became a nagging injury that the Blues desperately needed to overcome. Even rumors of Ashley Cole’s supposed demand for a move to Real Madrid became a distraction capable of destroying the double-winners’ chemistry.
Then Drogba gave us a theory – one that would answer every question, every doubt about Chelsea’s title hopes this season. No one really believed him, but he confidently declared the hernia surgery halted pain that held him back since he arrived in London six years ago.
“It was a hernia. I first had it six years ago. For the last six years I have been struggling with it,” Drogba told the Independent on Aug. 10. “I couldn’t really work, it was difficult for me to play some games. I also had to miss training. Now I am happy because it has gone, and I am more free.”
Based on Saturday’s hat trick, it’s hard – and probably stupid – to doubt the man. He looked fit. Chelsea looked right, and it rolled to victory over a team it was supposed to beat. Perhaps more than any other club in England, Chelsea thrives when its supposed to win. This quality is among the most important for championship clubs, and Drogba never fails to pour it on when the Blues take on one of the Premier League weaker sides. During Chelsea’s three championship seasons since 2004, Drogba has scored 36 of his 51 goals in these three seasons against clubs that finished south of the top seven.
Drogba and the Blues didn’t view the win over West Brom as anything more than the first step toward winning the Premier League again. The win did, however, show them they were capable of doing so. Something the previous months didn’t do much of for the Blues. Aside from Drogba’s issues, England’s failures in the World Cup and the annual storm of transfer talk surrounding the club forced even the veteran fixtures of Chelsea’s starting 11 to wonder if they could do it again. In his sixth year with the club, there’s no question Drogba’s become one of its leaders, and Saturday provided all the proof anyone needed.
“It’s good to start the season like this knowing that we’re not even ready yet,” Drogba told The Guardian. “The message we sent out was to ourselves, not the league, because we know we’re not fit but that we can still play good football. There’ll be difficult moments, but we have the quality. We can cope with difficult times. Personally, I’m a better player now at 32 than I was six years ago when I came here.”
Drogba’s statement demonstrated a level of confidence entirely absent from the club – excluding their fans, of course – prior to the dismantling of West Brom. Now, if there’s anything clubs such as West Brom are good for, it’s giving opponents confidence. And it’s likely the Blues, and their opportunistic talisman, will have about five games worth of confidence before the first real test of the season against Manchester City on October 25 followed by a matchup with Arsenal.
Against the league’s top clubs – and there are more than ever this season – points will be at a premium as City and others have morphed into legitimate contenders. However, more often than not, it’s those points squandered against the West Broms of the world that cost teams championships. Chelsea didn’t lose those matches last year. And they didn’t because Drogba’s excellence, unlike many other top players, doesn’t wane against inferior competition.
Despite his track record, the questions about Drogba’s health and age will continue until he plays a full 90 minutes. This may not be a particularly fair assessment based on Saturday’s performance. He may not have played the full 90, but he did more than enough in his 70.
Joe Meloni is a writer and contributing editor for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at Joe.Meloni@TheSoccerGuysOnline.com.