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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Nov 13, 2006

Ballack yet to find his feet

Chelsea 4 - 0 Watford

From the moment Chelsea secured the services of Michael Ballack last summer, a debate began in earnest.

Few doubted that Germany's inspirational captain had much to offer after he opted to wind his career down receiving the sort of wages only Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is mad enough to pay, yet three months into his stay at the home of the English champions, the doubters over his relevance to this Chelsea team are waiting to be won over.

Theories that the former Bayern Munich hero would struggle to compliment Chelsea's ever-reliable Frank Lampard were aired before the pair had played alongside each other and against the side rated by many as the weakest in the Premiership, Jose Mourinho's dynamic duo had their chance to turn on the style.

It was a chance spurned by the leaden-footed Ballack. Playing in a Chelsea midfield three that had been given every license by Mourinho to attack the Watford back-10, it didn't take long to come to the conclusion, once again, that this most gifted of individuals was merely getting in the way of a team that would get along fine without him.

Having apparently lost the pace and guile that made him one of Europe's most complete midfielders, Ballack did little more than take the pace out of each and every Chelsea attack. In a team bereft of width, Mourinho was expecting a thrusting performance from the player he thought he was signing, yet maybe that fabled model is consigned to the memory banks.

Let's not forget that Ballack was a pale shadow of his former self during last summer's World Cup and even though he has scored a couple of half-decent goals for his new club in recent weeks, the reported £130,000 being invested in his weekly wage is not justified.

He was little more than a spectator as Didier Drogba won this game for Chelsea inside seven first half minutes, with the previously lambasted Andriy Shevchenko playing a full part in both goals. The fact that 'Sheva' cost a club record fee in excess of £30m meant that his sluggish start in a Chelsea shirt was all the more obvious, but as Ukraine's most famous export slowly finds his feet, Ballack shows no signs of breaking the shackles.

It was Shevchenko's miss-hit shot that created the first opening for Drobga and the Ivory Coast striker was never going to miss from close range with just the keeper to beat. The same was true as his strike partner fed him after 35 minutes, with the finish almost taken for granted as Ben Foster was beaten again.

All seemed rosy in the Chelsea garden and Ballack's failure to make any sort credible impact looked set to be covered up once again, but then came a moment that exposed the intense frustrating running through his veins just now. Finding himself defending in an unconventional position on the right flank, his ragged hack on Watford's Jordan Stewart was both pointless and unprofessional.

The tackle drew a gasp from the Chelsea fans who must be wondering when the world-class superstar they were expecting to watch every week will announce his arrival. Referee Howard Webb had no option other than to brandish a yellow card.

The improving Shevchenko and Drogba's third goal added the cherry to the top of Chelsea's cake before Mourinho finally put his hapless No.13 out of his misery by replacing him 18 minutes from time. The muted response to his departure said much about the lack of affinity Ballack has won among the Stamford Bridge faithful.

When a new player arrives at a club, a period of adjustment is always permitted, but a lack of enthusiasm is rarely welcomed. Mourinho may have given the German a warm reception as he left the field, but he jury is very much still out on a player whose career may have run out of steam before he arrived in London.

While Ballack was woeful, Drogba was wonderful. Long gone are the days when this powerful forward was little more than a laughing stock as his sparkling hat-trick against the Hornets confirmed his class again. His first half goals were clinically finished, while his control and through ball gave Shevchenko no other option than to fire the champions into a 3-0 lead.

His hat-trick was complete as he tapped home Geremi's 68th minute cross and his complete display inspired this passionate tribute from manager Mourinho. 'If you look around European football right now, Didier is the best striker out there,' stated Mourinho. 'In every aspect of the game, he is amazing and now his task is to stay at this level. I don't like to say he is unstoppable, but this is true right now.

'He can't play much better than this, so he now has to make sure he continues to perform like this for a long time to come. It may be that Shevchenko, Henry or Eto'o can be amazing when they are on top form, but Didier is the best striker in the game at this moment.'

This reporter has been among those to criticise Drogba down the years, though there is little doubt that he is using all his physical attributes to their fullest now. The diving antics that destroyed his reputation for a time can be forgotten as his power in the air and skill with the ball at his feet means he is now a complete match winner.

As ever, Mourinho ensured the performance of his players would not grab the headlines as he responded to Sir Alex Ferguson's criticism of his planned meeting with referee's chief, Keith Hackett, in typically bullish manner.

'I attended a meeting with Mr Hackett a few months ago and he said that if at any point in the season I wanted to discuss something with him, I must give him a call,' he stated. 'I nearly called after the Reading game, then after Sheffield United, but after the Tottenham match last Sunday, there was no option that to get arrange a meeting with him. Every manager has been told to call him if we have something to say.

'The day I see our opponents with the ball two yards over the line and no goal is given, I promise you I will not talk about referees for two years,' he added, clearly referring to the infamous winning 'goal' Tottenham were denied at Old Trafford two years ago.

Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd accepted his side were 'outclassed by the Chelsea machine' and that 'Drogba epitomises what any manager would want to see in a professional footballer'.

Didier Drogba's revival is proof that a player can turn around his fortunes with a consistent run of form, so maybe Michael Ballack can do the same. For now, the wait to see him at his best is more than a little painful.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Didier Drogba. You won't get too many better displays from a striker all season and even though the opposition was second rate, Drogba's hat-trick was a classy effort.

FOOD WATCH: The pre-match offering of a meaty piece of chicken complimented by rice, carrots and a tasty sauce was a roaring success. The post match apple pie was a delight.

TRANSFER NEWS: Mourinho revealed that Chelsea are set to hand experienced Swedish keeper Magnus Hedman a contract until the end of the season.

BALLACK VERDICT: Mourinho described his midfield unit as 'incredible, yet he must have said that without considering the performance of his misfiring German, who is rapidly looking like a player who has seen his best days.

INSIDER VERDICT: There is no point in judging Watford's dreams of survival on a day when they were hopelessly outclassed, but this was a clinical and efficient display from the champions. With Drogba in this form, they will take some stopping.

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