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New Drogba leading the way

That the front-runner for the Footballer of the Year award is in the Chelsea attack is no surprise. It is his identity that confounds expectation. So too though, does the sight of Didier Drogba on top of the goalscorers' chart. Many accusations have been levelled at him in his time at Chelsea, but clinical finishing was rarely among them.

Now things have changed. Drogba has 14 goals to Andriy Shevchenko's five. It is a sign of the £30.7 million striker's place in the hierarchy at Stamford Bridge that Drogba is often left alone up front while the Ukrainian is substituted.

Jose Mourinho has described the Ivorian as the best striker in Europe on current form, a title that, at various points in the last eight years, has belonged to Shevchenko. Not any more. There have been times since his move from Marseille when many would have disputed the labelling of Drogba as the foremost forward at Stamford Bridge, let alone Europe.

Now Drogba's higher status among Chelsea's firmament of stars has been cemented by a new and improved four-year contract that should end speculation of a return to France or a move to Italy.

It is further proof that in the department of a superannuated squad who have witnessed Mourinho's ruthless side more often than not, Drogba is the ultimate survivor.

Among the forwards, the homesick Hernan Crespo left in the summer along with Carlton Cole, constantly regarded as a reserve, and Eidur Gudjohnsen, subject of a midfield conversion by his manager before his departure to Barcelona. Mateja Kezman was sold the previous summer and Adrian Mutu summarily sacked the year before that. Only Drogba remains.

It helps that he has always conformed to Mourinho's team ethic. An imposing, disruptive physical frame and a willingness to work ensured defenders were always aware of his presence, even if his shooting sometimes did not trouble goalkeepers.

Playing alone in attack, as he did for the majority of his first two seasons in English football, required the self-sufficiency Drogba has displayed in recent times. Though accompanied by a partner (Shevchenko) for the majority of the current campaign, it has shone through in the way he has conjured chances out of nothing; as glorious winners against Barcelona and Liverpool show. Service from the flanks is traditionally the staple diet of target men, but Chelsea's narrow midfield can occasionally deprive the strikers of crosses leaving them to fend for themselves.

Drogba's blossoming into a prolific goalscorer can be attributed to increased competition and company in attack, as well as an increasing aptitude for the big occasion. The arrival of Shevchenko indicated Drogba could be dropped if Mourinho persisted with a solitary striker. Instead, they have been paired together and the Ivorian appears the beneficiary, not least because defenders may be distracted by the presence of the former European Footballer of the Year.

Two hat-tricks already, against Levski Sofia and Watford, indicate a determination to capitalise on the chances offered by weaker opponents. But how many of Drogba's haul are directly attributable to Shevchenko? The walloping of Watford, where the strikers shared the four goals, was the most convincing case for a burgeoning partnership, though it appeared as though Drogba provided the former AC Milan man with more chances than vice-versa.

The long-range strikes against Liverpool and Barcelona suggest Drogba, at 28, is still adding to his armoury, as does an increasing interest in free kicks - although he may have to wrestle the ball from Frank Lampard's grasp in this department.

His greater confidence is also reflected in the most controversial element of his repertoire of skills; now that his most valuable contribution to the Chelsea cause is not winning a penalty, Drogba seems capable of retaining his balance and has even shown an ability to stay on his feet under pressure.

Even when not scoring, as against West Ham on Saturday, he had a goal disallowed for offside and induced the foul from Danny Gabbidon that led to the free kick for Geremi's winner. Perhaps the contribution from the Cameroonian should have been expected. One of the intriguing subplots in Chelsea's season, besides the plight of the wingers, is African excellence.

Drogba has flourished in the 4-4-2 formation Mourinho has adopted. So too has Michael Essien, whose all-action style has made him a formidable opponent and the most impressive member of the midfield when, like Drogba, he started the season with considerable doubt over his inclusion in the first-team. If the Ivorian has a rival for the tag of the best player at Stamford Bridge this season, it is the Ghanaian.

It is impossible to ignore the question of cost in any examination of Chelsea. Though Roman Abramovich got, by his standards, little change from £50 million for the two Africans, suddenly they seem to offer value for money.

If appreciation of Drogba is growing, is his popularity? Should he maintain his magnificent form, the acid test will come in a few months when the votes for the annual awards are cast. So far, he is the outstanding candidate and other early contenders have their own enemies; Essien for his savage tackling, while Cristiano Ronaldo was the convenient scapegoat for England's World Cup exit. Drogba's propensity to tumble could yet cost him, but this is a season where his standing has risen considerably.

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