[UCL PREVIEW: Galatasaray-Chelsea]There’s no overstating the intrigue swirling about former Chelsea striker Didier Drogbarepresenting Galatasaray in the Champions League round of 16 series between the teams.
Drogba, the subject of rumors linking him to several MLS clubs, is a focal point for the showdown that opens Wednesday in Istanbul (live on Fox Sports 1 at 2:45 p.m. ET) though at 35 he’s not the force he was while scoring 100 goals for Chelsea from 2004 to 2012. But he certainly can’t be disregarded, either.
In pregame interviews, Tuesday ex-teammate John Obi Mikelgave Drogba his due yet also pointed out his greater value as a key component of an efficient system. As he was for Chelsea, so he is for Galatasaray, which by beating Juventus on the final day of group play edged the legendary Italian club for second place in Group B.
“We shouldn't get carried away about him coming back; he is a player that was here for eight years, he won major trophies, he's a big player with a big personality,” Mikel said. “They are a great team. Didier, Wesley [Sneijder], they have a good team and obviously they have [Coach] Roberto Mancini who is trying to implement his philosophy and change the way they play. It will be tough but it's a game we're looking forward to.”
Mancini faced Chelsea many times with Manchester City before being dismissed last spring, but never met Jose Mourinho in Premier League play. The Chelsea manager took the early lead in psychological tactics by hinting that he’d welcome back Drogba if an opportunity arose before praising him as well as his current club.
“I like to play against the best and Galatasaray are the Turkish champions,” said Mourinho, who as Real Madrid manager a year ago successfully engineered a tricky round-of-16 series against Galatasaray. “As for Drogba, we will have to do our job because we know he will want to do his, which is to score goals. It is a strange feeling to play him and we have to try to forget it.”
Drogba has scored 13 goals, including two in the Champions League, since joining Galatasaray last summer. Umut Bulut led the Turkish team with three goals in the CL group phase. Sneijder also netted twice, and with one of his goals kept alive his team’s campaign.
Mourinho also opposes Sneijder four years after the pair raised the Champions League trophy with Inter Milan. The Dutch international is no less important for his current club: Sneijder scored the vital goal that downed Juventus and propelled Gala into the knockout round. The skillful yet combative midfielder will play a key role in subduing Chelsea’s potent midfield that Mourinho can stock with Mikel, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Frank Lampard, Willian and Ramires.
“Of course, I have special feelings for Mourinho because we won the treble together,” said Sneijder. “In our home games especially we are playing really well and [Wednesday] we'll be at home. Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho are different coaches in terms of personality but they are both good tactically.”
And Mourinho, inadvertently for a change, poured more fuel on the fire by making critical comments about a lack of goalscorers on his squad in a private conversation that was captured on video and leaked to the press. How well he patched up his relations with Samuel Eto’o and Fernando Torres will be on display as Chelsea tries to advance in the Champions League and maintain a 12-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, which it leads by a single point over Arsenal, with Mancini’s previous employer, Manchester City, two points further back in third.
Galatasaray has closed to within two points of league leader Fenerbahce and is unbeaten at home (13 wins, three ties) this season. Its injury list is significant: Aydin Yilmazsuffered a broken ankle in a domestic cup match in late January, and a sore groin has sidelined Aurelien Chedjou for the last three games. A hamstring injury has kept Gokhan Zan out of competitive play since late December. Hamit Altintop, a long-term absence because of back troubles, returned as a substitute two weeks ago in a 0-0 tie with Antalyaspor.
Said Mancini, who cagily suggested he could deploy a 4-4-2 formation against Chelsea or go with a 3-5-2 system, “Didier Drogba was an important player for Chelsea. Sneijder won the Champions League with Mourinho and they have a nice relationship, but we need both Wesley and Didier to play well [Wednesday]. Then they can go out for dinner after the match!”