Respect is an interesting idea in competition. It’s a word I’ve never particularly liked hearing, at least with regard to what goes on on the pitch.
It implies a certain level of equality. You respect an opponent you know will give you a tough, fair and winnable match.
For those so far above your level you can’t hope to touch them, ‘respect’ is, at best, a conceit. You don’t ‘respect’ nigh-on unbeatable opponents — you’re scared of them.
It was not so long ago that Michael Essien’s presence scared whole teams.
Last year saw Bayern Munich bring to an end Barcelona’s long run of dominance. Before last year’s decisive semifinal, the Catalans had reigned over Europe for four full seasons, their supremacy completely unquestioned.
Even their setbacks had been mere losses rather than true ideological defeats — both Chelsea and Inter Milan happily conceded the point as to which team was the better in setting themselves up for a pair of legendary upsets.
That changed last year. Javi Martinez was the final piece in Bayern’s puzzle, the man who allowed them to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona and come out as emphatic winners.
Alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger, Martinez demonstrated to the world that the La Masia model was beatable with a sufficiently strong blend of athleticism, focus and technique.
The Bavarians’ win fulfilled a prophecy laid down four years prior.
The 2009 semifinal was an unequivocal disaster for the Blues, but it wasn’t because of the way they played. Pep Guardiola’s team were overmatched by the Bison’s Chelsea midfield, all pace and power against the lightweights of tiki-taka.
That Barcelona controversially won on away goals meant that the lesson failed to stick, but the truth was always there, looming over the possession purists like an inescapable shadow. Essien terrified them.
In the late 2000s, Chelsea boasted an extraordinary array of talent. Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard. But one suspects that if you pressed an opposing fan at the time for the player they’d most like to have for their own, the answer would have been Essien.
He was everything you could possibly have asked for in a midfielder. Blessed with tireless running, strength on the ball, ferocious tackling, vision and a deadly long-range shot, it’s not inconceivable that the Bison at his pomp was the best footballer we’ve seen in the Roman Abramovich era.
Chelsea might have been beatable. Michael Essien was not. He was not a player the opposition ‘respected’, he was one they feared.
And then he was robbed from us by a series of knee injuries.
The worst thing about injury and recovery in athletes is that there’s ample room for hope. Essien tore his anterior cruciate ligament on international duty with Ghana in September 2008; he returned quickly and performed brilliantly upon so doing.
But while the knee problems hadn’t taken away any of his explosiveness or skill, it did sap away his durability. Further knee problems followed, and they took a heavy toll, but that didn’t stop us envisioning the Bison returning to his very best.
By the time Chelsea actually won the Champions League, Essien had gone from the beating heart of the midfield to a bit-part player. He was still a reasonable option in the centre, but the edge that made him the very best in the world had long since worn down to nothingness. We knew he was gone by that point. There would be no real last hurrahs befitting a man capable of dominating games like almost nobody else, just a series of cameos in which his shadow drifted ever more limply around the pitch.
Still, it was difficult to admit that we were saying a drawn-out goodbye. Even when he was loaned to Real Madrid for the 2012/13 season, the door was open for his return, and his absence (and surprisingly strong performances in La Liga) let us dream again of the Essien-who-was contributing to the side this year. But when he came back, we were again disappointed.
Chelsea have never recovered from losing the real Michael Essien. It’s probable that our first-choice midfield partnership for the rest of the season will be Ramires and new signing Nemanja Matic, who could do a reasonable impression of the Bison in his pomp if you somehow combined both of their strengths and flushed away the weaknesses. We used to be able to dominate the heart of midfield with one player. Since we’ve been lucky if we could dominate it at all.
If he’d left earlier, if there had been a clean break, it would have been easier for everyone. He’d have gone out a hero, a true, irreplaceable club legend. But we’ve had to watch — and he’s had to watch — his fall from his position as the top midfield general in the game to what he is now: a decent signing for a mid-table Serie A club.
There’s been much pontificating on why Chelsea supporters have been more emotional about Juan Mata leaving the club than Michael Essien. It’s not an unreasonable point, either. Both were superb talents, both conducted themselves in the most becoming way possible off the pitch, but Essien was the superior player and served the club for significantly longer. By all rights, the weeping and wailing should be reserved for him.
But the injuries took that tribute from us too. We’ve been saying goodbye to the Bison for years, and it’s a process that’s been so draining that most of us don’t have the emotional capacity to give him a proper tribute for this, his final sendoff.
There should have been more tears than this. I wish it were otherwise.