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Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

United clash gives Drogba chance to prove player-of-year credentials


LONDON — The prospect of Didier Drogba even being considered as the Footballer of the Year last season would have brought ridicule. The members of the Football Writers' Association have to judge the player who "by precept and example" they believe deserves the award and the Chelsea striker is on course to be among the candidates this time around.

Christopher Davies

There are obvious negatives about the Cote d'Ivoire captain. He has a reputation, richly deserved, for going down too easily yet amazingly has never been cautioned for diving. In fairness to Drogba, he has improved this side of his game though the image of him swearing at a television camera after the Champions League semifinal defeat by Barcelona last May is still fresh in the memory.

Few top stars are without their excesses and among previous Footballers of the Year are Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, so Drogba's "previous" should not necessarily preclude him. If he keeps his nose clean and continues his current form, Drogba cannot be discounted.

On Sunday, he faces a Manchester United defense without the injured Rio Ferdinand and probably Nemanja Vidic, too. The Wes Brown-Jonny Evans partnership was embarrassed by CSKA Moscow in the 3-3 midweek Champions League game and Drogba must be licking his lips in anticipation about playing against the champions' second-string central defensive duo.

Drogba already has 12 goals in 13 matches to his credit despite being suspended for the first three group games in the Champions League, a result of his Barcelona excesses. He returned against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday and scored twice in the 2-2 draw. His display, not for the first time this season, was a reminder that when he concentrates solely on football Drogba, at 31, is the complete center forward.

He has strength, speed, agility, movement, superb technique, scores goals from short range or long distance, is a free-kick specialist and ticks every box of what makes a great striker.

The point in Madrid ensured Chelsea of a place in the Champions League knockout stages and it now has the opportunity to seize the initiative in the Premier League title race.

Carlo Ancelotti's team has not conceded a goal at Stamford Bridge since the opening day of the season when Stephen Hunt scored for Hull. With Drogba in his current form and Chelsea looking like a well-oiled mean machine, the Ivorian has the platform to underline his credentials for English football's most prestigious individual award.

* * * * *

THERE IS a new pastime in England called Rafa Baiting. It has been open season on Rafa Benitez after Liverpool's run of six defeats in eight games and its Champions League hopes hanging by a thread following the 1-1 draw in Lyon.

The Liverpool fans remain generally loyal to Benitez, puzzlingly so to outsiders, but the media and ex-players have generally put a collective boot in on the Spaniard. I have no problem with anyone saying a manager should be sacked. Football is all about opinion, but surely for there to be any credibility to the Rafa Must Go argument there should also be a realistic alternative put forward.

That's where the anti-Rafa brigade usually falls down because too many of his critics simply say he should be sacked.

The popular shout is for Kenny Dalglish, who returned to the club as an ambassador recently, to step up again. Dalglish was a hugely successful manager with Liverpool and Blackburn from 1985 to 1995 but subsequently the Scot was sacked by Newcastle and left Celtic under a cloud.

It is 14 years since Dalglish, who has been consistently supportive of Benitez, was a successful manager in England and he has shown no inclination to return to the hot seat.

Would Dalglish or any manager immediately available really be able to do a better job than Benitez with the players at their disposal?

Benitez doesn't help his case by making some baffling decisions, not least selecting Andriy Voronin, who contributes so little it is as if Liverpool has only 10 men. With three minutes remaining in Lyon, Benitez took off Fernando Torres — even if the striker is not 100 percent fit, what difference would a few extra minutes have made? His substitution released Cris, who had been shadowing Torres, and the Lyon defender played a crucial part in the home side's 89th-minute equalizer.

Chief executive Christian Purslow has said that Benitez's job is safe even if Liverpool doesn't win the title, so on that basis the media appear to be wasting their time in trying to boot out Benitez. The Reds' likely departure from the Champions League will increase the pressure on Benitez but the deciding factor will be whether Liverpool qualifies for next season's competition.

Torres, for one, will not want to play in the Europa League or even worse, not play any European football in 2010-11.

If the player reckoned by many to be the best striker in the world becomes unsettled, then Benitez's departure, whether he jumps or is pushed, is more likely.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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