Ivanovic says his goodbyes as a hero of Chelsea
As he gets ready to depart Stamford Bridge, the Serb will be remembered as one of the best right-backs in the Premier League and a genuine match-winner
As he prepares to depart Stamford Bridge, the Serb will be remembered as one of the best rightbacks in the Premier League.
It used to be the sort of game that would suit Branislav Ivanovic. The sort that would define him, and which he could decide.
Indeed, Friday marked the two-year anniversary of a seismic clash between Chelsea and Liverpool, a typically badtempered and close affair that was settled by Ivanovic, whose extra-time goal took the Blues to the League Cup final.
As Liverpool and Chelsea reconvene at Anfield tonight, it will probably be without Ivanovic – not just in the starting 11s, but in any capacity. His eight-year stay at Stamford Bridge could be concluded before then.
Having arrived in one January, he seems set to exit in another.
An overlooked understudy when he joined, who was not granted a debut for eight months, he has become a high-profile reserve at the end, dropped four months ago.
His last league start has acquired a symbolism.
It was the trough before the peak, the last chance for oldschool Chelsea before Antonio Conte radically reshaped them.
It was September’s 3-0 defeat to Arsenal.
Ivanovic’s position at rightback was then rendered redundant, his duties split between Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta.
With 15 wins in 16 subsequent league games, Chelsea have moved on and so – seemingly – will Ivanovic.
Yet between that inauspicious start and a largely ignominious ending to his time at Stamford Bridge, he was a colossus.
He rivalled Pablo Zabaleta, another warrior who is suffering for his considerable efforts, for the unofficial title of the best right-back in the Premier League. But he was much more besides, and not merely because he was Chelsea’s best centre-back under Rafa Benitez.
Signed during Avram Grant’s time in charge, given his bow by Luiz Felipe Scolari, pensioned off by Conte, he was nonetheless a definitive Jose Mourinho player – a ruthless, forceful winner.
When he was at his best, he was a heroic figure. It was fitting that Ivanovic was on the scoresheet in his apparently valedictory appearance against Brentford on Saturday because no defender delivered more important goals in that time.
Some were products of his aerial ability, others the result of rampaging runs on the right flank.
There was a winner away at Manchester City. An opener at Paris Saint-Germain.
Showing his flair for late goals, something to which Liverpool can, the 93rd-minute Uefa Cupwinning goal against Benfica in 2013.
Latest of all was the 105thminute decider in the 2012 Champions League tie against Napoli that marked the start of Chelsea’s remarkable run to glory under Roberto di Matteo.
Ivanovic was one of the heroes of the 2012 semi-final against Barcelona, and one of those banned for the final.
He was one of the full-backs who formed the centre-back partnership in the Nou Camp after Gary Cahill had limped off and John Terry been sent off, he and Jose Bosingwa somehow keeping out Lionel Messi and co.
He was, to use Mourinho’s wonderful phrase, “a competitive animal with a big heart”.
In an era when Chelsea have possessed vast riches, his £9 million (Dh41.3m) fee ranks among their best bargains.
Select a combined Chelsea team from the Roman Abramovich era and Ivanovic would be patrolling the right of the defence with a trademark mixture of defiance and adventure.
But he discovered that decline can be swift and unbecoming.
His finest season, when his efforts in Chelsea’s 2014/15 title-winning team earned him a vote or two in the Footballer of the Year ballot, was also the last before he proved a fading force.
Having climbed a mountain, he tumbled down the other side of it.
He ranked as one of Chelsea’s greatest disappointments last season.
After six games in this campaign, Conte decided to drop him.
Ivanovic, like Terry, became yesterday’s man.
But his yesterdays should be remembered.
They were testament to his character and determination. An import who came to epitomise his adopted club, a footballer signed to stop goals who scored 33, often in crucial fashion, Ivanovic became Chelsea through and through.
It is why, though he is no longer the redoubtable force of old, his departure should be mourned.
Branislav Ivanovic may be yesterday’s man now but there was a time when he proved to be an important part of Chelsea’s success.