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Drogba still key to Chelsea success

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Phil McNulty | 08:19 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Didier Drogba has been called many things in his turbulent time at Chelsea - diver, drama queen and prima donna being three of the more printable tags attached to this enigmatic and often infuriating figure.

No-one, however, has ever accused Drogba of being a bad player and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was made aware of a simple fact of life as Chelsea stumbled past CFR Cluj to reach the Champions League knockout phase.

Drogba, for all his foibles and failings, must be kept onside and at Chelsea if they are to fulfil the ambitions Scolari has for them at home and abroad.

Didier Drogba and Nicolas AnelkaChelsea needed the extra dimension Drogba gives them, and his expertly-taken winning goal, to finally overpower the resilient Romanians who played on the nerves exposed during a tense and scrappy encounter at Stamford Bridge.

In the post-match inquest, Scolari performed the verbal equivalent of a high-wire act as he balanced the ego and impact of Drogba against the sensitivity of another high-maintenance striker, Nicolas Anelka.

For every word of praise for Drogba there was a plaudit for Anelka.

Listen to this and you get the drift of what we heard from Scolari: "It is important for me, but don't forget we arrive in second position in the Premier League because our scorer is Anelka.

"Drogba is important. One of the best in the world - but you need to think about Anelka and I need to say to you that Anelka is as important as Drogba."

Scolari ended by offering a prayer to a higher power that both men stay fit and you can see why.

Drogba is capable of moments of madness and magic. He produces an unplayable performance that destroyed Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final last season then follows it with a handbags at two paces spat with Nemanja Vidic and a ruinous red card in the final.

He scores a superb goal against Burnley in the Carling Cup last month and then celebrates by hurling a coin back at the visiting fans - although let us also reserve due contempt for the chump who threw the object in the first place.

Drogba is alleged to have had dinner with Inter Milan, then serves up the match-winning cameo that earns him a standing ovation at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, complete with a public "we've missed you" message from the tannoy announcer after his goal.

All human life is there with Drogba. But one thing is certain - Chelsea cannot afford to let him go to Inter Milan or anywhere else if they wish to contest the major trophies this season. If you fail to pick the lock you might occasionally need to blow the doors off, and that is what his explosive power provides when Chelsea are struggling.

Of course he can also be an irritant who can drive his own fans to distraction, but if Scolari can flick the right switch and get Drogba focused, they could yet claim the crown that eluded them so agonisingly last season.

Anelka's stealth and pace can do the trick on foreign soil, but when Chelsea were frustrated at Stamford Bridge in defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, it called out for the bombast the absent Drogba would have provided.

Chelsea will have to do it the hard way in the Champions League after finishing second in their group, and even though Scolari was right to insist they will take anyone in the last 16 (and let's face it they have to anyway), huge improvements and re-inforcements are needed.

The air of invincibility they have carried at home in recent years has been eroded. Cluj had the audacity to actually go for it at various stages on Tuesday and gave Chelsea anxious moments.

Chelsea need the steadying influence of Ricardo Carvalho restored to central defence, and they missed Frank Lampard against Cluj, where the midfield looked rudderless and the absence of Michael Essien was underscored.

scolari_ap.jpg

Chelsea's struggles, by their own standards, at certain points this season must be placed in context by a reminder of those players they have had missing.

If Scolari can put all those pieces together, then Chelsea can be as formidable as they have been in the past.

The advance into the last 16 at least removes some of the spotlight from Scolari, amid some fairly laughable suggestions that pressure was getting to him.

He will have felt pressure, despite his denials. Any professional coach at elite level does purely because of the standards they set for themselves and their team.

As Scolari rightly pointed out, pressure is coaching Brazil. And having seen him in the eye of that totally unique storm in a World Cup-winning campaign in Japan in 2002, I am certain he can cope with some mild questioning of his Premier League credentials.

For all that, he will have felt relief on Tuesday night, not least because he admitted - light-heartedly - that he would beat a hasty retreat back to Brazil if Chelsea did not get the required result against Cluj.

It was not vintage Chelsea but it was job done. And as we have seen from Liverpool's European campaigns in the past, sometimes it is not how you start the Champions League but how you finish.

But to go for glory in Rome next May, Scolari must devote time to keep Drogba's eyes on the prize. On this evidence Chelsea cannot afford to be without him.

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