Old hand breathes new life into Blues
Almost a year on from a multitude of obituaries for his Chelsea career, Didier Drogba was the man to make a Bridge of sighs sing once more.
Andre Villas-Boas could need to learn a few things from him about resurrection, and as the Ivorian departed the field to a standing ovation, the coach's often pained look was converted into a brief grin of calm. He already knows that his new job allows few of those, and a chippy determination had returned by the time he faced the press.
Chelsea may now look forward to the knockout rounds of the Champions League, the competition they would like to be their own. Drogba's demolition job built a structure into a season of decaying ambition, but it was an alliance of old and new that saw Chelsea achieve the target of qualification as group winners. Both had shown considerable moral courage in achieving their aims.
"It's fantastic, against all odds," Villas-Boas said. "No-one would have bet on us finishing top. It is very gratifying for the team." Villas-Boas then chose to describe the evening as a victory for "solidarity, responsibility, strength of character, resilience, and the ability to take criticism".
"Maybe we gave everybody a slap in the face," he glowered, with no little enmity towards those he believes have supplied a "continuous persecution of one club".
"You must accept that this is a brilliant win," he further challenged. He might perhaps have enjoyed his moment more.
The dropping of a supposed 'untouchable' for the biggest match of the season presents a risk factor, but if there is a leading characteristic of Andre Villas-Boas' regime so far, it is a determination to be his own man. He may often espouse collective effort but he clearly believes that he must be the key decision-maker at Chelsea. Considering the fall of previous Chelsea regimes, it is a brave stance to take, though single-mindedness is a keynote of any footballing success story.
Frank Lampard's disgust at being subbed on Saturday supplied an opportunity to express that Villas-Boas is eager to see off public shows of dissent. The only statement asked for here was one of qualification, and a 0-0 draw had been incorrectly presented as enough. Instead, Chelsea approached their task with power rather than flair at the heart of their tactics, and quick dividends arrived.
When Drogba crashed home past the weak left hand of Diego Alves after three minutes, the goalless route became an irrelevance. The early raids had the look of the power of the Chelsea of old, though it was Raul Meireles and Juan Mata now supplying Drogba's bullets. As has been the wont of 'AVB', Chelsea approached their task on the offensive. In the light of continuing defensive shortcomings, it was a sensible policy.
"It helped us to score straight away, gave us the right emotional stance," Villas-Boas said. "And the full boost of confidence."
Drogba's ball through to Ramires - with the help of a ponderous Victor Ruiz - allowed the Brazilian to slide home for the second. Home and hosing on the opposition, this was a performance in marked contrast to the lethargy of previous efforts. Drogba, except on certain notorious occasions, is willing to rise to a challenge, and with Fernando Torres in bench mode once more, and Nicolas Anelka unlikely to be enjoying next springtime in London, the Ivorian reaffirmed his worth to Chelsea, for the moment at least.
Here is a player who goes down fighting, in more ways than one, and one whose pride dictates that he must leave Stamford Bridge on his own terms. It is not his problem that Torres looks ever more the unwanted plaything of an oligarch's ego. Drogba's place in the Chelsea pantheon is assured for his continual presence on the big occasion, and though Europe has provided his most bitter moments in blue, he has often been the one that got them there in the first place. This was another such occasion and Drogba supplied the end to any vain Valencia resistance. After dragging a shot wide, he then burst through on the break to slot past Alves.
That Chelsea are in need of rebuilding is without doubt, and of the Lampard-Terry-Drogba triumvirate said to have once been too powerful in Chelsea's Roman era, the striker had been expected to be the first to lose his powerbase. However, he provided progress and perhaps time for his manager.
Of course, Villas-Boas will know that heavy defeat to Manchester City next Monday can only supply fresh ammunition. An awareness of those very opponents reflected in Villas-Boas' suggestion that it is Chelsea and not the far-more endangered City who have been picked on for facing a Champions League exit. "That's your editorial decision," he said. "I hope they qualify but Manchester City do not get the criticism."
Meanwhile, amid the Portuguese man-of-media-war's grandstanding, the hero of the hour received somewhat faint praise. "A striker finds his confidence with goals," Villas-Boas said of Drogba. "He's on a good run. As long as he performs then perfect, but the other ones are there as well."
It was a sign that, for all its effectiveness, this may have been a temporary alliance of convenience. It had served both well this time.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Didier Drogba. "A true professional," Ruud Gullit said of the striker who confirmed that he can still the man for Chelsea's big occasion.
CHELSEA VERDICT: A performance of energy from the very start. The aim of blowing away opposition as quickly as possible was in opposition to the caution preached by many in their errant belief that a 0-0 scoreline would have been enough regardless of results elsewhere. Mata and Ramires' energy and creativity supplied the platform for Drogba and a rather more wasteful Daniel Sturridge to wreak havoc.
VALENCIA VERDICT: Only after the third goal did their heads peer down after displaying their keen brand of passing for much of this contest, but they had no answer to Chelsea's power. It might have been different if David Albelda's strike and Sofiane Feghouli's finishing had been more precise. Ever Banega in midfield was sorely missed.