“Didier Drogba, I’m going to say it now, it is written in the stars.”
Those were the words that Gary Neville, with all the exaggerated cadence of his early broadcasting days, uttered as Didier Drogba strode up to the spot for the fifth and decisive penalty in the 2012 Champions League final.
And seven years later, it is hard to argue with. In fact, the only point of contention may just be when this incredible fate was set for the Ivorian? When is anyone’s destiny sketched out? Naturally, it’s a hard thing to concretely answer, but I’d hazard a guess that Drogba’s was etched in Moscow at the same stage four years previously.
On that occasion, with perhaps a greater side (but not a greater team), Chelsea had faltered on penalties, and Drogba was helpless to stop it, having relinquished his right to take one by petulantly slapping Manchester United centre back Nemanja Vidic in the 116th minute.
This forced John Terry to take the fifth and decisive penalty inside the Luzhniki Stadium and the rest is, well, a history that we’d rather not linger on.
But, somewhere in the ashes of that tortuous defeat, a prophecy was born, one that laid out the path of redemption that Drogba would tread over the forthcoming four years. Inevitably – this is football, after all – this journey began with the prospect of a departure.
Drogba had let the club down, and for that, the club would let him go. This proved to be unfounded, but even with his crucial goal in the following season’s FA Cup triumph, rumours of his exit reverberated even louder around the footballing stratosphere that summer, with his ’It’s a disgrace’ outburst following the tragic Champions League semi-final loss to Barcelona supposedly the nail in the coffin of his Blues career.
Again the rumour mills were found wanting, with Roman Abramovich and co instead opting to reward the striker with an improved three-year deal that would take him through to, yes, the summer of 2012.
Two further FA Cup final goals and trophies followed, as well as a Premier League title (and Golden Boot), but the Ivorian’s redemptive arc was still not fulfilled.
Indeed, to ramp up the tension before this final reckoning, Chelsea made it clear that Drogba, at 34, would not be handed another contract extension beyond that summer. This was it then.
And this narrative played out in the game – a game that is simultaneously etched into our brains and remarkably fuzzy – even in the stats. For the most part, it was a whir of Bayern shots, 35 to be exact, and Bayern misses – 28 of them were off target.
At times, it felt like nothing but that air of destiny, of inevitable invincibility, was keeping Chelsea alive. At times it was the sheer willpower of David Luiz and Gary Cahill to thrust themselves in front of every shot they could. And, at times, it was just the left underside of Petr Cech’s torso.
To be honest, it’s hard to remember anything Drogba did that game that wasn’t completely indelible, because, well, there were only three real moments where he took centre stage, and all three came within a few yards of the penalty spot.
First, there was the hope-rescuing header of the 88th minute, which came from Chelsea’s sole corner of the game, compared to Bayern’s 20. Then there was the hope-trashing foul of the 94th minute that gave former teammate Arjen Robben the chance to steal it from the spot.
But even those two fade away – well, actually, that header is still the greatest I’ve ever seen – when compared with that third and final act in Didier Drogba’s final act (well…) as a Chelsea player.
You know the drill.
Juan Mata misses the first, and the worst is feared. FCB hit their first three and the worst is nigh on confirmed. Frank Lampard then becomes just the second player ever to score in two European final penalty shootouts. Ivica Olic then teases the door back open with a lukewarm effort to his right that is well-saved by Cech, before Ashley Cole becomes just the third player ever to score in two European final penalty shootouts with a souped-up version of Olic’s effort.
Bastian Schweinsteiger then has his hesitant effort finger-tipped onto the post by an outstretched Cech, leaving a certain someone with the pen of his own destiny in his hand, and a different kind of pen required to write it.
All that was needed now was the signature. No, not the signature that would keep him at the club, but the signature that would cement his legendary legacy. The signature that would confirm his life-sentence to the annals of Chelsea history.
And so he stepped up to meet his destiny, with Neville reminding him of this fact as he did, and the Bayern fans desperately trying to distract him with their whistles. But then he steadied himself, and the whole world stood still, even those in the hitherto raucous Bayern end behind the goal, and waited for fate to take shape.
But Drogba didn’t wait. As the whistle blew, he placed his left foot back before careering forward with two purposeful steps, one of which somehow also served as a stagger, before he slotted the ball with untold composure into the left-hand corner of the net, and, in half a second, history was made.
With parity in mind, it’s perhaps fair to end with the words of Clive Tyldesley from the night’s other broadcast. Because, in an instant, Didier Drogba had delivered…
“The greatest night in Chelsea’s history. Champions of Europe at last. Champions League winners, the hard way. They’ve beaten Bayern in their own backyard, and at their own game: penalties.”