x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Champions League: Didier Drogba will provide Galatasaray edge over Schalke

The Ivorian striker has proved an instant hit with the Turkish side, writes Ian Hawkey.

Didier Drogba, who scored on his league debut for Galatasaray, is expected to start for the Turkish club against Schalke. Ozan Kose / AFP
Didier Drogba, who scored on his league debut for Galatasaray, is expected to start for the Turkish club against Schalke. Ozan Kose / AFP

It took Didier Drogba less than five minutes to win over the Galatasaray supporters. In under half an hour of action wearing the jersey of the Turkish champions, he may also have persuaded his new head coach to shape the team's tactics around the 34 year old.

To report that there is a charged, weighty anticipation around the Ivorian's return tomorrow, to a tournament with which he has a long, influential relationship would be an understatement.

Drogba is widely tipped to make his first start for Galatasaray against Schalke in Istanbul, having made such a dramatic impression coming on as a substitute at the weekend on his debut for the club he joined from Shanghai Shenhua in the January transfer window.

He entered just after the hour at Akhisar Belediyespor with the score 0-0. Served by a cross from Burak Yilmaz, he had scored within five minutes, with a commanding header, his first goal in a European contest since his equaliser for Chelsea in the Uefa Champions League final in Munich last May.

That would not be all. A neat exchange of passes between Drogba and fellow newcomer Wesley Sneijder two minutes later opened up the space for Yilmaz to add the second, in a 2-1 win.

"We speak the same language in terms of our football," Sneijder, a Champions League winner with Inter Milan in 2010, told reporters of the instant cohesion he and Drogba had displayed.

That Yilmaz added his word to contribute to the script was also significant. The question of how much Galatasaray needed Drogba has been asked only quietly since he arrived – from a vexed and frustrating African Cup of Nations and the wearying legal disputes over whether he could leave Shenhua – at the Turkish Super Lig leaders, but Galatasaray do already have a formidable marksman.

They came out of the group phase and with the highest individual goalscorer, jointly with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, in the tournament. Yilmaz, 27, has six so far.

He is an intelligent and modern enough striker to fit into the 4-3-3 Galatasaray's experienced head coach Fatih Terim is tempted to use to best exploit his available riches up front. Umut Bulut, the Turkey international, has been his preferred foil up front this season.

With Johan Elmander, the Sweden forward, also on the roster, competition for places is certainly heightened. It was deemed to have been raised too high for the Czech striker Milan Baros, who announced his immediate departure from the club, cancelling his contract, this week.

The high-profile new signings are part of a project to, as the ambitious president Unal Aysal puts it, "place Galatasaray among the top 10 clubs in Europe". Their prospects of landing in the top eight of this Champions League – they have not been in the quarter-finals since 2001 – look favourable not simply because of the added know-how of Drogba and Sneijder but because Schalke are in such a wretched state.

They have a caretaker coach, Jens Keller, in charge, and a backdrop of just one win their last 10 games. Keller hopes the Dutch centre-forward Klaas Jan Huntelaar will have shown sufficient recovery from an eye problem to participate, although of equal concern to him will be how his defenders keep a close watch on the lead strikers, Drogba and Yilmaz, of this gala-edition Galatasaray.

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