Any discussion of Chelsea’s title chances since the start of the season seems always to have come with an asterix. Yes, they might be embracing life under a new manager, and scoring goals freely, and looking strong at the back, and be 1.59 favourites thanks to a five point lead.
But here’s the catch. Beware of January when the African Cup of Nations takes all their players away.
The obvious big miss will be top scorer Didier Drogba who has so sensationally recovered his appetite and bullying, bruising ability to power his way past defences. But also on the plane to Angola will be Michael Essien, Jon Obi Mikel and Drogba’s Ivory Coast team mate Salomon Kalou.
But Kalou believes that the Blues will be able to cope without their African stars in January. For a start he’s flagged up the New Year fixture list which means the games that the African players will miss are against Hull, Sunderland, Birmingham and Burnley.
No great crisis there, then. And he’s also listed the players waiting to step into the breach. “Even when Didier leaves you still have Nicolas Anelka and Joe Cole, and Deco, and Michael Ballack. Lots of people who can score goals.”
Of course it’s Drogba who is the man in the most sensational form, and he’s the reason why the Ivory Coast are 3.6 favourites to win the African Cup of Nations. The Chelsea centre forward is the stand-out name in a star-studded squad that also includes the likes of Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure and his brother Yaya, Didier Zokora and Abdoulaye Meite.
But beware of backing them, because they have the English disease – no recognised goalkeeper! Vincent Angban, a 24-year-old who plays for ASEC Mimosas in Abidjan, is the latest to have been given a try to fill the gap left by the retirement of Jean-Jacques Tizie.
Of the others around the squad only Boubacar Barry, who has had no more than decent reviews for Belgian club Lokeren, has more than a dozen caps – and that’s only because he’s got 13.
The perceived wisdom is that an African country will eventually win the World Cup, and against Drogba’s presence makes them the shortest price for this summer’s festival at 26.0. But unless Angban or Barry suddenly flourishes thanks to the experience of playing in Angola in January, then that price should be doubled.
Kalou might well be right that he can come home in time to look forward to a Premier League medal. It’s likely to be all he wins, though.
Five things you might not know about Salomon Kalou:
1. Born in Oume on the Ivory Coast in 1985, he has four other brothers apart from Bonaventure who has also played for the international side and is now at Heerenveen in Holland
2. He also has eight sisters, and just to avoid any doubt, all with the same mum!
3. He turned down an early opportunity to follow Bonaventure to Auxerre in France, choosing instead to go to Feyenoord, and was just 17 when he got 15 goals in 11 games for their feeder club Excelsior
4. He fought a long, and ultimately losing, battle to gain Dutch citizenship which failed despite the assistance of Marco Van Basten and Johann Cruyff
5. He has a deep friendship with Didier Zokora, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue which began when they were with the same youth coach in Africa but deepened when they were all together at the beach when Zokora’s brother was drowned in an accident
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