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Saturday, April 21, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Drogba theatrics taint impressive Chelsea first-leg win


LONDON — He is built like a heavyweight boxer but has the pain threshold of a child. Didier Drogba stands 190 cm but unfortunately his impressive frame spends too much time on the ground. There isn't an ounce of fat on his muscular body, yet the slightest touch can bring a reaction as if he has been hit by a Klitschko.

Christopher Davies

Against Barcelona, the Chelsea striker was at his theatrical best — or maybe worst is more apt — on European football's biggest stage. Drogba spent 152 seconds horizontally after seven first-half collisions, only one of which needed treatment. Referee Felix Brych played three minutes' stoppage time, and after 105 seconds of added time Drogba scored the goal that gives Chelsea the slenderest of advantages to take to the Nou Camp for Tuesday's Champions League semifinal second leg.

Even at 34, Drogba remains the complete center-forward, combining strength, skill, subtlety and sublime finishing. But as one headline put it, he remains a floored genius and will be remembered as much for the way he goes down as the way he puts the ball in the opposing net. One joke was that "my wife walked in front of the television and Drogba fell over."

Drogba's pain plan was obviously pre-conceived in an effort to break up Barcelona's mesmerizing passing game, a tactic designed to disrupt the rhythm of a team that virtually owned the ball at Stamford Bridge.

Barca flew home wondering how it lost a game it had dominated — it had 72 percent possession while Chelsea scored with its only attempt on target when Drogba, spending some welcome time on his feet, beat Victor Valdes from close range.

The Catalans did enough to win the game twice but the only statistic that matters is: Chelsea 1, Barcelona 0.

The Cote d'Ivoire captain put on a masterclass of how to lead the attack but also how to push what is acceptable to breaking point. Former Barcelona striker Patrick Kluivert said: "He's a great player and doesn't need to go down that easily. It's not nice to watch."

Did Chelsea fans care about such blatant gamesmanship? No.

Would supporters of other teams who criticized delicate Drogba have been bothered if one of their players play-acted in the same way as their side beat Barcelona 1-0? Unlikely.

There is, sadly, almost a growing acceptance of diving and deception in England, justified — or rather attempted justification — by "they all do it."

Drogba and Chelsea will no doubt feel the end justifies the means and the Blues are unbeaten in their last six matches against Barcelona, a record no other side can claim. Defensively, Chelsea was outstanding, putting bodies in the way of Barcelona shots, showing determination, commitment and guts with its tackling while riding its luck as the woodwork was hit twice, at least four easy chances were missed by the visitors, with Petr Cech making three world-class saves.

Interim first team coach Roberto di Matteo continues to impress and three days after Chelsea thrashed Spurs 5-1 in the F.A. Cup semifinal his tactics of stifling Barca with a five-man midfield in an effort to cut off the supply to Lionel Messi and company worked . . . somehow. Whether Chelsea can repeat this in the second leg on Tuesday and whether Barca will be so wasteful again is unlikely.

Only once at the Nou Camp this season has Barca failed to score at least two goals, but on Saturday in "el clasico" Real Madrid hopes to make it two defeats in a row for the team accepted by most as the best in the world.

* * *

THE BEAUTY of football is that sometimes there is no logical explanation to why things happen. Take Reading. Last May it was beaten in the Championship playoff final by Swansea, during the summer captain Matt Mills moved to Leicester and the team's best striker, Shane Long, joined West Bromwich Albion. After one win in its opening seven games Reading was one place off the bottom and Brian McDermott, two years into his first senior managerial job, was facing a relegation battle.

Last Tuesday, the Royals won promotion to the Premier League after defeating Nottingham Forest 1-0, which meant they had won 46 out of the last 51 points available.

McDermott signed Kaspars Gorkss, a Latvian defender from Queens Park Rangers, and striker Adam le Fondre from Rotherham last August. Three months ago Reading brought in Blackburn's experienced goalscorer Jason Roberts, who has proved to be an inspirational figure as the Royals secured their place at English football's top table after an absence of four years.

Inevitably, the lion's share of the credit is given to the bespectacled McDermott and rightly so. His style of management is almost low-key, though if any player crosses him McDermott shows a steely side rarely seen in public. An intelligent, eloquent and media-friendly man, McDermott is proof that nice guys can finish first.

* * *

JACK WILSHERE'S injury problems are now into overtime. The foot injury he sustained while on England duty against Switzerland last June was originally expected to keep him sidelined until New Year. Then there was a setback and another setback. There is now no light at the end of the tunnel.

Wilshere was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the heel and the January comeback, which became February, then March, is now a non-starter. In mid-February, Arsene Wenger said that Wilshere "can be back in a month if all goes well." It didn't and the will not play again this season.

Wenger has been fiercely defensive of the Arsenal medical team but the Gunners have had what many people feel is a disproportionate number of players sidelined for long periods.

Perhaps Arsenal has just been unlucky but it is inevitable that questions are being asked.



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