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Lovable villain lines up for one last box-office hit

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Didier Drogba of Galatasaray and former Chelsea player (L) and Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho

Didier Drogba of Galatasaray and former Chelsea player (L) and Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho

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Didier Drogba of Galatasaray and former Chelsea player (L) and Chelsea Manager Jose Mourinho

Shanghai is a long way from the Champions League both geographically and competitively, which is why Didier Drogba finds himself in Turkey and how it has come about that he lines up for Galatasaray against Chelsea in Istanbul this week.

Time is no longer on the striker's side. He will have turned 36 by the return leg at Stamford Bridge next month, and though a move back to Chelsea in a playing capacity was mooted last year, new reports linking him with various MLS clubs appear to make more sense. Jose Mourinho, satisfied that Chelsea saw the best of the Ivorian first time around, is already preparing a royal welcome.

"The Turkish champions with King Didier is the draw we would have asked for," the Chelsea manager said. "When he comes back to this club he deserves a reception better than mine."

Drogba will probably get one too, for few players over the course of Premier League history have been as widely appreciated. There may have been better players and more successful individuals, and Drogba's penchant for exaggerating contact in search of a penalty or free-kick made him a villain in the eyes of many, though even the most joyless purist would have to admit he made an entertainingly theatrical villain. At his best he was a handful the best defences struggled to contain, at his worst, whether being knocked down with a feather by Jens Lehmann or slapping Nemanja Vidic to earn dismissal in extra-time in the Luzhniki Stadium in 2008 – thereby obliging John Terry to step up for the fateful penalty kick that could have decided the Champions League final in Chelsea's favour – he was always good box-office.

Drogba eventually atoned for the latter error with his final act in a Chelsea shirt, tucking away the last penalty to secure the club's Champions League success against Bayern Munich two years ago. The performance earned him the man-of-the-match award and a permanent place in Chelsea history, though given that the Moscow final could have gone either way, and that Chelsea under Guus Hiddink were positively itching to have a go at Manchester United in Rome the year they were scandalously denied by Tom Henning Ovrebo at the semi-final stage, Drogba's time in England could almost be viewed as under-rewarded. Particularly as he only missed out on a Champions League final at the end of his first season in the Premier League by virtue of Luis Garcia's phantom goal at Anfield.

Under-recognised, however, he was not. When Blackpool achieved their unlikely promotion to the Premier League in 2010, one of the hundreds of fans interviewed for local television vox-pops stated categorically that what she was most looking forward to was seeing Drogba: "Here on this pitch."

The effect seems to have been similar in Turkey. "He has been a big hit with the Galatasaray fans," said Alp Ulagay, a football writer for Hurriyet. "He is probably the biggest name recruited by a Turkish club. We have had Nicolas Anelka, Roberto Carlos, Gheorghe Hagi and others, but Drogba is the most famous and charismatic. This season, thanks to his and Wesley Sneijder's presence and the club's success in reaching the Champions League, Galatasaray managed to sell more than 47,000 season tickets, a Turkish record."

Drogba opted for Istanbul midway through last season, when with things not going according to plan at Shanghai Shenhua he realised he could have another shot at the Champions League. He scored eight goals in 11 games for the Chinese club, impressing observers with his work rate and determination to succeed – in contrast to Anelka, who left his new audience in no doubt why he earned the nickname Le Sulk – but the pair had basically joined a club in the middle of an ownership dispute that had little prospect of paying the wages that had been promised.

Once FIFA ratified his disputed move back to Europe, Drogba's goals and assists helped Galatasaray clinch the league title last season, and though his tally at the moment stands at a respectable 18 goals in 46 matches, fault lines are beginning to appear. While Drogba was the key man during the group stage of the Champions League campaign, especially impressive in the two performances against Juventus that helped Galatasaray qualify at the Italians' expense despite a mauling at the hands of Real Madrid in their opening game, he has not been anywhere near as good since. He has only scored twice in his last 10 games and has been particularly ineffective, a bit like his team, in away games.

"Drogba can sometimes appear arrogant with referees and rival players," Ulagay said. "He keeps himself very private, doesn't say much, but you have the impression he might think himself above this league, or at least some of the matches he has to play. He seems to save his best for the Champions League."

If Drogba saves his best for the two games against Chelsea there are unlikely to be too many complaints from either side, though his immediate task is to rebuild bridges on the home front. Playing at Antalyaspor last week, Drogba was visibly annoyed at being substituted by Roberto Mancini before the end of a 2-2 draw – dropping two points away to a side near the bottom of the table is symptomatic of Galatasaray's current form and explains why they are six points behind the leaders Fenerbahce – and made no secret of his displeasure, pointedly refusing to shake the hand of the assistant coach Tugay Kerimoglu as he left the field.

If he is offered a contract renewal it is likely to be for one more year. Drogba would prefer two, but that might not happen, hence the suggestions, no more than rumours at the moment, that he could seek a final payday in the United States.

He has his Foundation to think of – Drogba sponsors hospitals and schools in his native Ivory Coast – and America would undoubtedly love him even if that stage might seem small after shifting 47,000 season tickets in Istanbul.

For the time being, the Champions League stage beckons for perhaps the last time, and whether or not he is picking his matches, you would not bet against the big fella showing he still has one or two big games left in him.

Observer

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