Uefa Champions League: Didier Drogba and Jose Mourinho share mutual admiration
Didier Drogba returns this evening to the arena where his Uefa Champions League odyssey began.
It was Real Madrid versus Marseille, the opening game of the group stage of the competition nearly 10 years ago, and Drogba, exploiting a space left open by a young and less-than-stellar Madrid central defence, scored his first goal in European club football's most glamorous competition.
There have been 44 Champions League strikes since, the last of them the soaring header which kept Chelsea in the final against Bayern Munich last May, forced that match to penalties, and left Drogba with the spot kick to secure the trophy. He was 34, and he wanted more. Hence the decision in January to join Galatsaray, the club who could offer him Champions League football, and for whom he will spearhead the attack in Madrid tonight.
A few weeks after his first Bernabeu goal, Drogba met Jose Mourinho for the first time. They were in the tunnel at Marseille's Velodrome arena just after another fixture in the 2003/04 group phase. Porto were the guests and their bumptious young head coach sought out the tall Ivorian.
"Hey, don't you know of any other good strikers from Ivory Coast?" Morinho said. "Don't you have a cousin or something I could sign?"
He was joking, but the flattery was sincere.
"I'd love to sign you," Mourinho said, "but we can't afford it."
Soon enough, Mourinho had a job where the purse strings were looser. On joining Chelsea, Mourinho told the London club to make the recruitment of Drogba one of their priorities; he told Drogba signing him from Marseille was the priority.
The deal itself, lubricated by the lavish funds available from Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, progressed favourably enough, and Mourinho set about nourishing the confidence of a footballer whose journey through the professional game had been unusual. Drogba was a late developer who had still been playing in the French lower divisions in his 20s.
Mourinho's dexterity as a brilliant motivator came to the fore.
"He told me he wanted to make me one of the greats of Europe," Drogba recalled. "He never stopped praising me."
Amid some scepticism in England about Drogba's bona fides, Mourinho hailed the new recruit as "a pillar of my Chelsea".
The rest is history. Drogba cried when Mourinho left Stamford Bridge just over three years, and two Premier League titles, later. A father figure was departing and the captain of Ivory Coast "felt like an orphan".
"He had given me so much," Drogba wrote in his autobiography.
In the preface to the book, Mourinho describes him as "a friend for life".
The professional admiration remains. Mourinho considered an approach for Drogba in January, on a short-term deal, but given the presence of Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema, between whom he will chose the partner for Cristiano Ronaldo in the Madrid front-line tonight, he perceived no urgent need.
There was also the issue of Drogba's match fitness. The striker spent his time between leaving Chelsea last June and signing for Galatasaray in China, and a spell with Shanghai Shenhua that finished unhappily.
Nor did his performances for Ivory Coast at a disappointing Africa Cup of Nations for his country exhibit a man in vintage form.
Drogba scored on his debut for the Turkish champions, but in seven league and Champions League matches since, has not added a goal. But Mourinho knows that even a rusty Drogba carries menace.
When they were at Chelsea, and the striker was recuperating from injury, they would go through the same conversation with each other, so it became a running joke. Mourinho would ask the Ivorian about his fitness. Drogba would reply: "I'm 60 per cent, boss, but I will give 100 per cent of my 60 per cent."
Even that should be enough to gain the backing of Fatih Terim, Galatsasary's head coach.
He has worked hard, in limited time, on utilising Drogba's target-man qualities in tandem with the prolific Burak Yilmaz, a leading marksman – along with Ronaldo – in the Champions League this season.
He's also integrating the creative strengths of Wesley Sneijder, another January addition to Terim's squad and another huge loyalist to Mourinho, with whom Sneijder won the 2010 Champions League with Inter Milan.
Sneijder has, ahead of tonight's first leg, been singing Mourinho's praises as long and loud as Drogba tends to.
It is a sound the Portuguese seldom hears from some senior players at Madrid, whose club captain, Iker Casillas, will not start tonight despite having recovered from injury.
In years to come, Casillas will be a reluctant member of the Mourinho fan club chaired by Drogba, and vice-chaired by Sneijder.
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Published: April 2, 2013 04:00 AM