Drogba finds his fire ahead of Red Devils face-off
The rage burning inside Didier Drogba as he was ushered down the tunnel by Paulo Ferreira suggested that this was no warm-up for the main event at Stamford Bridge in two days' time.
This was a match that Chelsea badly needed to win and as they strove to haul themselves past a resilient and resourceful Stoke side, one of their fans suggested that Drogba should have put the ball into the box. The striker with a boxer's build squared up to his questioner as the final whistle went and had to be led away.
Nevertheless, this was a display in which Drogba had asserted his right to start against Manchester United in Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final. It was not just that he scored or beat Asmir Begovic with a beautifully-directed diving header to cancel out Jonathan Walters opener for Stoke. It was not that he struck the frame of the goal -- something the home side did to Chelsea twice -- but the way he seemed to be everywhere, the way he tackled back.
"It was important to see him in this condition and it was important to see him score," Carlo Ancelotti said. "He used his power, ability and personality."
And yet it was not a game Chelsea won and nor did they really deserve to. If they were to retain their title, Chelsea needed United to feel their breath on the back of their necks but, with seven games left, Alex Ferguson's side can barely hear the echo of their running shoes.
However, as the United manager seeks to win the European Cup at Wembley, Chelsea stand before him like a vast blue wall. Ancelotti argued that this fiercely competitive draw would have mattered only if his team had picked up injuries or played badly. They did neither.
"Whether it is the Premier League or Serie A, the performances are important to check on the condition of the team," he said. "After this game we can say the team is in good condition."
Ancelotti reached three Champions League finals at the helm of Milan, winning two. It is worth pointing out that in none of these years did Milan win Serie A. By contrast, Ferguson's three finals have all come in seasons in which United have won the league.
In one of those finals, in the teeming Moscow rain, Chelsea were the beaten team, although their goalkeeper, Petr Cech, tried to argue that this somehow left no scar. "It is three years back now," he said. "They didn't really win it; they had more luck in the shoot-out."
Cech was, however, right to point out that since that night, the psychological advantage has lain squarely with the Londoners. Ferguson does not need to win at Stamford Bridge but the last time he did was nine years ago and the only survivors of that 3-0 victory are those four mud-coated veterans, Terry, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.
"We will still go into Wednesday's game with confidence because our record against United, especially at home, is very good," said Cech.
Fernando Torres, too, knows what it is to beat United. Of all the carrots dangled before him was the argument that if he left Liverpool for London he would be virtually guaranteed Champions League football.
However, it hard to see why this most elegant of centre-forwards should start; certainly not on the evidence of the half an hour he was given at Stoke.
At Atletico Madrid, they called him El Nino, "The Kid", and now he resembles nothing so much as a boy with his football, looking at a game from the sidelines, wondering if he will be invited to play. (© Independent News Service)