May 25, 2012
In American sports they obsess over who is a ‘closer’, who can be relied upon ‘down the stretch’, who is the most ‘clutch’ i.e. when backs are against the wall, chances are few and far between, when the pressure becomes unbearable for mere professionals, who can stand tall and win. It is the most intangible of sporting skills but separates the good from the great.
Didier Drogba, for all his perceived foibles, possesses this skill in abundance. His singular confidence (albeit well placed) in his ability, his charisma and his balls, frankly, set him apart from other players with comparable talent.
Late Saturday night as German anxiety radiated from the stands of the Alliance Arena on to the players on the pitch and Chelsea’s chances seeped away into the Bavarian night, I, like many others thought if there was one man in blue who could change the game it was the mercurial Ivorian.
And so it was. One monumental header, one nerveless penalty, sandwiched between a moment of madness (it is Drogba after all), and it was over. History made. Ninth goal in ten finals. Somehow inevitable.
As someone who grew up just as the Premier League and Sky became the prevailing show in town, it struck me that the only player who gave me that same feeling of inevitability: Eric Cantona.
I remember watching United in the 1996 FA final against Liverpool and their cream suits. The match itself was horrible, all niggly fouls and jangled nerves, but in the 86th minute as a corner came into the box, with every other player seemingly involved in a frenzied mass wrestle, Cantona found a yard of space and calmly stroked in an off-balance volley. Just as he had come to the fore scoring most of the goals during the ten game win streak (mostly one nils) to make it a Double season or his two goals in the 94 FA Cup Final. The raised collar seemed a force field to the surrounding chaos.
In these determining moments when others let the occasion force them into mental paralysis or their bodies betray, both players thrive..
The similarities don’t stop there.
Cantona, more than any other player in the Ferguson era, is often credited with turning a good side into a great one. His acrimonious move across the Pennines in 1992 gave the physically imposing, often brutish United side of Robson, Bruce and Hughes the splash of flair needed to win the first league title in 26 years.
Mourinho, quite rightly (though the English press do resemble a smitten 14 year old girl at times), is given recognition for making an expensively assembled Chelsea squad into hardened winners. However, of the 70 million he spent in his first summer, bar Essien, who endured a difficult introduction to the league’s physicality, Drogba was the only signing who proved transformative. Kezman, Thiago, Ferreira anyone?
Both players have attracted controversy like seagulls to a trawler. While Cantona railed against the footballing authorities for various sins, Drogba seems to often rail horizontally on the pitch against non-existent opponents. The Frenchman had numerous explosions of anger, in some cases even violence, during his career; he infamously decided to teach Palace supporter Richard Shaw a personal kung-fu lesson in 1995 and was subsequently banned for eight months; he spat at a Leeds fan in his return to Elland Road and caused a near riot in Galatasary after being sent off in the Champions League. Drogba meanwhile has infuriated fans, including his own, by diving, rolling and a feigning his way through games despite being 6 foot 3 and possessing the body of a Greek god. Screaming ‘It’s fucking disgrace’ into a Sky camera and intimidating referee Tom Ovrebo after a contentious loss to Barcelona, unsurprisingly, won him few new admirers outside the Kings Road.
Internationally they have had mixed success. Both have captained their countries, but neither won a tournament. In Drogba’s case although twice voted African Player of the Year, he lost both African Cup of Nation Finals he was involved in, missing two decisive penalties, the only blotch on his record in pressure situations. Cantona’s relationship with Les Bleus was naturally tumultuous, banned early for calling his manager ‘a bag of shit’, then made captain by Platini, usurped by Zidane during his Palace sabbatical and ending in a feud lasting to this day.
Stylistically Cantona, while an imposing physical presence, played the game with an almost balletic grace, possessing a spatial awareness and ability to dissect a defence with a nonchalant flick, which flummoxed defenders and even some team mates. Not a great goal scorer, rather a scorer of great goals.
The Ivorian is often referred to as a big battering ram, all brawn and no brains. It’s true that his physicality (when he fancies it) can bully the best defences in to submission. Left foot, right foot, header, volley, inside/outside the box – he can and does score any which way. However, he has mastered the subtleties of the game as the long campaigns and Stoke defences have taken their toll.
Despite their somewhat differing playing styles, there are several notable statistical similarities. Their domestic goal scoring records, to date, are identical: each have a ratio of 0.44 goals per game. The position form which they scored goals is also comparable: Cantona scored 22.8% of his goals inside the six yard box to Drogba’s 22.7%, inside the penalty area 70% to 67.8% and 7.2% to 10.1% from long range. Understandably, given his role as a number ten, as opposed to Drogba’s position as a traditional number nine spearhead, Cantona’s assist ratio is only slightly higher: 0.50 per game to 0.41. In fact both had the highest number of assists for at least one season, Cantona in 92/93 and 96/97 (16 and 22 respectively) and Drogba in 2010/11 (a massive 25).
Ultimately though what makes Drogba the closest we have seen to the ‘new Cantona’, rather than those previously bestowed the title, such as Rooney, Henry or even Berbatov, are not just the numbers or polarising character traits but the ability, through sheer force of will to command and conquer the grandest of stages.
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