By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (May 23, 2012) US Soccer Players — Now that Didier Drogba has made it clear he won’t be playing for Chelsea next season, our reigning Champions League title holders face the kind of scenario more familiar to North American pro sports teams. How do you replace the player that matters most?
Before coming up with a list of alternative candidates for that title still on Chelsea’s roster, remember what just happened. As much as we can credit Petr Cech’s performance in goal, the 2011-12 Champions League final might as well be renamed the Drogba final. That’s how fans and pundits alike will remember it.
Now Drogba is telling anyone willing to listen that yes, he really meant it when he said the recently concluded season would be his final one with Chelsea. More to the point, it’s expected to be his final one at that level. He isn’t expected to be moving laterally, adding his skill set to a club at or near the top of their major European leagues.
"I will have time to make my decisions," Drogba told Chelsea’s official site. "The most important thing for me was to stop all these rumours about playing or not for Chelsea next year. It’s good for everyone to know that this is the end of eight years of constant improvement, constant big moments."
So where does that leave Chelsea? This isn’t a wholesale clear out like we occasionally see when retirements and free agency combine in North American sports. Yet there are those similarities.
There’s still no coach at Chelsea, not officially anyway. Roberto Di Matteo wasn’t greeted at the tribune in Munich with the job he’s held on an interim basis. Even though it’s hard to believe that Di Matteo didn’t put himself in the running by taking the Champions League title, Chelsea is still expected to consider their options. Though European club soccer mixes titles with domestic and Champions Leagues, this is still the equivalent of a championship coach potentially not staying with a championship team. Di Matteo didn’t build this version of Chelsea. This isn’t a Phil Jackson with the Bulls moment, where Jackson exited with a championship along with most of the key components.
Chelsea isn’t seeing that kind of turnover, far from it. There are still enough players with valid contracts to form the basis for a highly competitive team. It’s just not the one. The player with the singular talent taking a trophy from a favorite… in their home stadium… in the biggest club game in Europe. All of that adds up to equal how hard it is to replace someone like Drogba. Barcelona and Real Madrid might make it look easy with their recent examples, but they’ve had their own misfires trying to restock their attack. Should we expect things to be different for Chelsea?
After all, when we’re talking about the elite striker capable of being the difference in a Champions League title run, the list isn’t very long. Sure, players can emerge. We’ve seen that over the course of a season. However, that’s a calculated risk rather than a plan. We don’t know when the Champions League group stage gets serious whether or not a player without that pedigree will respond well. Chelsea aren’t in the position to take that kind of risk.
What that means is spending, and spending in competition with other clubs looking for the exact same thing. Drogba is 34, well past the age where a professional soccer player’s skills are supposed to peak. Regardless of his personal decision to step away on his terms, Chelsea knew they were going to need the next elite striker. They bought Fernando Torres, an unnecessary reminder that Chelsea will spend. Britain’s record transfer has a full season with Chelsea, scoring seven times in 46 games. That’s hardly Drogba-esque, but Torres is also much more than a calculated risk. Torres’s career is in its prime while Drogba recognized he had completed what he was brought in to do.
"My decision is not based on what the club offered me or not," Drogba said when explaining that Chelsea wanted to keep him. "My decision is not based on money, because to stay here wasn’t a question of money. I have always been happy with what I had here. My family was happy, it was not about the money. It’s just I think it is time. After eight years trying to achieve the best thing, when you are looking for something like the Champions League for years and years and you finally get it, what’s next?"
At 28, Fernando Torres is a World Cup and Champions League winner, but he doesn’t have a Premier League title. He’s at that age where everything peaks for a professional soccer player. He’s also seen what Drogba did as a 34-year-old striker. Torres is the type of player that’s expected to be the difference at club level, but has yet to really be the push that carries a club forward. It’s a challenge, something to accomplish even as Torres publicly asks about his role with the club.
For Chelsea, it’s part of the answer. Yet the absence of Drogba looms ever larger. Torres as a piece has unquestioned value, but the Champions League title took both Torres and Drogba. It also took playing against a better style of soccer shown by Barcelona and then Bayern. They were the classic counterpuncher, to borrow a term from boxing.
Skill and titles don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, but there are limits to playing against the possession game of skilled teams. No one is going to argue Chelsea were the most skilled team in Europe in 2011-12. That becomes the next step for a title-holder with something to prove.
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