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Chelsea beats Inter Milan, 2-0, at Rose Bowl

Ivory Coast international Didier Drogba is a one-man highlight reel in the first half.

July 22, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES | ON SOCCER

Didier Drogba as goal scorer? Sure. Happens all the time.

Drogba as peacemaker? Not so common, but it happened at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday night.

Drogba as fantasist, inventor of surprising passes and superlative moves? Sure. Apparently there isn't much the Ivory Coast international is not capable of doing on a soccer field.

Tormentor of referees? User of sometimes shocking language? Yes, also true, but there are few who would claim Chelsea's 31-year-old striker is not worth the price of admission.

On Tuesday, 81,224 showed up in Pasadena's Arroyo Seco to watch Drogba and the rest of the Blues defeat Italian champion Inter Milan, 2-0, in a first-rate international friendly.

Drogba scored the first goal, combining vision with touch to steer the ball just inside the right post from 30 or more yards a mere 10:22 into the match.

Frank Lampard grabbed the second goal, confidently stroking a penalty kick past Vid Belec, Inter's 19-year-old Slovenian goalkeeper, in the 50th minute after Inter's Ivan Cordoba had been called for handling the ball.

It seemed a harsh call by referee Ricardo Salazar because Cordoba had turned his back on the play when the ball struck him. He did not appear to intentionally handle the ball.

But back to Drogba.

There isn't a soccer fan who will not remember him from May's run-in with Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo after Chelsea had been knocked out in the semifinals of the European Champions League by eventual champion Barcelona.

Scenes of Drogba's wild-eyed tirade against the referee were beamed around the world. Viewers in Britain were also treated, much to their surprise, to the colorful language he used.

Drogba was given a suspension for that meltdown and will miss some of Chelsea's early Champions League matches in the upcoming season that begins next month.

On Tuesday, however, he was keeping the peace.

About 20 minutes into the game, as both were chasing the ball, Lampard sent Inter Milan defender Nicholas Burdisso crashing head-first into the advertising boards to the right of the goal.

Burdisso was ready to take Lampard on right there and then, but Drogba intervened and the incident was over.

Quicker to the ball, smoother in its passing and closer to its Aug. 15 English Premier League season opener than Inter Milan is to its own Serie A opener a week later, Chelsea carried the game to the Italian champions.

Not surprisingly, Drogba was involved in most of the first-half highlight moments.

He looked to be in mid-season form, and perhaps he is because reports Tuesday suggested that, rather than being traded away as was rumored earlier this year, the veteran forward is about to sign a contract extension with Chelsea.

New Coach Carlo Ancelotti, who has moved over to Chelsea from AC Milan, must like what he sees in Drogba.

Inter Milan Coach Jose Mourinho, who coached Chelsea to two Premier League titles before being released in 2007, could have told Ancelotti of Drogba's quality.

"It's easy for a coach to work with a player that has this type of character," Mourinho said this year, "because he is someone born to work, to win, to be loyal, a friend, a team player."

Drogba played only the first half Tuesday, but that was enough for the largest crowd to see a soccer game in Southern California since the U.S. defeated China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final, also at the Rose Bowl, and the biggest for men's soccer since the 1984 Olympics.

Roll on, the new European season.

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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