Friday 22 September 2017

Chelsea's Drog of war may be first casualty in new era

The Ivorian hitman could be on his way as Abramovich seeks to renew his project with a changing of the guard, says Paul Hayward

Paul Hayward

B ubbling away in Roman Abramovich's 16-home, £11bn empire is the problem of what to do with the old guard. With Fernando Torres's £50m transfer from Liverpool, Chelsea's increasingly dictatorial owner has risked internal strife over the team's famously lavish wage structure and may use the issue this summer to purge the elderly.

As a student of Kremlin politics [and an expert now in the acquisitiveness of Premier League footballers], Abramovich knew paying Torres £175,000 a week was bound to arouse the jealously of a swarm of players now striding into their 30s. John Terry, 30, Frank Lampard, 32, Didier Drogba, 32, and Ashley Cole, 30, are the foundation of Chelsea's three Premier League titles under Abramovich's patronage but their influence is waning.

The defending league champions, Chelsea now face a 12-game struggle to qualify for next season's Champions League -- starting with Manchester United's visit on Tuesday. "It is not a good position for us, we know we have to do better, we want to do better," Cole says. "We are out of the FA Cup, the Carling Cup, we're never going to give up on the league but the Champions League is probably now the main focus for us to win because not many people here have won that one."

Torres was not hired specifically to annoy the powerful dressing-room cabal who have shaped the club's fortunes since Jose Mourinho arrived in 2004. But his arrival will hasten the break-up of a mighty core. Only Terry is known to have secured a clause in his contract guaranteeing at least parity with Chelsea's highest earner but Lampard, Drogba and Cole would not appreciate being heavily outpaid by a new player currently living off old glories.

If Abramovich wants a clear-out, this is his chance. Over the past fortnight there have been clear signals Terry is no longer an automatic choice at centre-back and that Drogba will be used as back-up to Torres and Anelka in a new 4-4-2 formation. Drogba accompanied Torres against Liverpool on the latter's debut but was then dropped for the game at Fulham, restored for an FA Cup fourth-round replay against Everton and demoted again for the midweek Champions League trip to Copenhagen.

Chelsea's improved display in Denmark prompted Carlo Ancelotti to say: "The key to this game was the good movement up front from Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres. We played quick up front to avoid the pressing and this why I say we played with intelligence." Of Torres, he said: "He shouldn't lose confidence because he didn't score. He played very good for the team."

Officially Ancelotti will choose his strikers game by game but as the team prepare to confront the league leaders there is no disguising the probable end of Drogba's 240-game stay in London. As Abramovich renews his spending drive to protect his original £700m-plus investment, Drogba is more vulnerable than his ageing comrades. Dumping "The Drog" would enable Ancelotti to alter the team's pattern of play away from Drogba-inspired directness in favour of a quicker, subtler style keeping with the current fashion.

Even before Torres decamped from Liverpool, Chelsea's annual wage bill was £172.5m, or 82 per cent of turnover, on losses of £70.9m. Uefa's new financial limits on clubs will provide an incentive and an excuse for Abramovich to correct his own error in allowing an aristocratic squad to grow old together. The scale of his spending in January -- £70m on Torres and the centre-back David Luiz -- suggests a willingness to take draconian action to stop Chelsea slipping behind Manchester City and Spurs in the bigger contest with Manchester United and Arsenal. Luiz is 23, Torres 26, Petr Cech still only 28, the improving Ramires 23 and Branislav Ivanovic, who has just signed a new deal, 26.

Salomon Kalou, who lives a charmed life, is 25. Mikel John Obi, at 23, has reached a point where many who thought he would be the next great defensive midfielder are now saying he has failed to train on. But with Josh McEachran, 17, emerging as Chelsea's Jack Wilshere, Abramovich possesses a nucleus of players under 28 to lead the team out of the Terry-Lampard-Drogba era.

How fast that procession moves may depend on the attitude of those senior figures when the current desperate mission to preserve Champions League status is over. None has the market value of two years ago, when Terry was being chased by Manchester City and Lampard apparently had the option of going wherever Mourinho went next. Cole would still command top dollar and Drogba would be coveted by most Premier League managers. More likely than a move across England, though, would be a return to Europe: possibly Marseille. In his autobiography, he writes of Zinedine Zidane's birthplace less as an alma mater than as a kind of womb, which he was grief-stricken to leave.

Chelsea without Drogba would delight centre-backs who sport bruises from trying to stop him, physios who run on to the pitch in a state of confusion about whether he is injured or just being a drama queen and officials at the club who have to clean up after his outbursts.

Drogba's "It's a disgrace" tirade at the cameras after the inept refereeing of Tom Henning Ovrebo in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2009 was turned into an excellent rap video, and was one of many occasions when the Ivory Coast's most famous sportsman has revived the spirit of J'Accuse to make a melodramatic point.

He stirs disdain in opposition spectators and a complex ambivalence among his own team's fans, who see him as the embodiment of Mourinho's determined, forceful style but also as a self-server who placed his own irritation with Nemanja Vidic in a Champions League final ahead of the club's raging urge to land the prize. Drogba's face-slap on Vidic in Moscow removed him from the subsequent penalty shoot-out and remains the low point in a history of self-indulgence.

But what a D-shaped hole he will leave. Obituaries will doubtless feature his deliberate handballs against Fulham and Manchester City a few seasons back, his swiftly retracted diving confession on the BBC and his constant threats to flee. But Mourinho once said of Drogba: "He is the kind of player I would tell: 'With you I could go to every war'." Yet in the queue to be the first casualty, Drogba is where he plays -- right at the front.

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