THE THURSDAY INTERVIEW: BRANISLAV IVANOVIC

Posted on: Fri 30 Mar 2012

There has been talk of a crisis at Chelsea. Not for the first time in recent memory, of course.

Three defeats in four games prior to Tuesday's win over MSK Zilina saw us lose our five-point lead at the top of the Barclays Premier League, and with injuries piling up, Carlo Ancelotti was forced to juggle his resources.

It is fortunate then that throughout these testing times, the manager has been able to call on Branislav Ivanovic, such a consistent performer that he strolled into last season's Premier League Team of the Season despite not nailing down a regular place until late October.

The Serbian began this season as he ended the last, but recently he has been forced inside to centre-back due to the fitness problems surrounding John Terry and Alex, and the steady return to fitness of Jose Bosingwa down the right flank.

A Champions League victory on Tuesday has hopefully brought the momentum back behind the Blues, and ended a barren run of front of goal for a team that scored 12 goals in its first two league games of the campaign, but just one in its last four.

Until that point, the spread of goals around the squad was impressive, with no fewer than 12 players finding the net, Ivanovic enjoying his own purple patch with three in two against Spartak Moscow and Blackburn in October.

Recent talk of a gloomy air around the training ground is instantly dismissed for anyone who bumps into the Serbian defender, in relaxed mood as he reflects on his scoring exploits of last month.

'Look, I think I closed this page for this season!' laughs the man referred to as "Two-Goal" by the Stamford Bridge PA. 'I like to try to score, last season I hit the post many times and didn't score, this season I got two against Spartak and one against Blackburn very close together, and then the goalkeeper made the save at Birmingham but I think it is finished.

'Everyone is working hard on the pitch, and at attacking and defending set-pieces. I am happy and to score goals gave me confidence but it is more important for the team to win matches, which we must start to do again.'

So does he now expect a return to the free-scoring days of summer for a team back in winning ways?

'When you look around the squad and see the great midfield that can score 20 or 30 goals a season, plus our strikers, who are really fantastic and very strong, there are so many goals,' Ivanovic says, clearly relieved to have ended the losing streak.

'If the defenders can help too it is even better. Then when we defend the whole team helps to defend, Drogba wins many headers defending corners, and the whole team works hard to keep clean sheets, which can be just as important.'

Tackling Ancelotti in training

As a defender of course, that is the prime target ahead of each game, and Petr Cech, like any goalkeeper, will always remind his defence of their responsibilities throughout each game.

In the past few weeks Ivanovic has faced Fernando Torres, Moussa Dembele, Asamoah Gyan and compatriot Nikola Zigic. All players of high repute, but is it the strikers he sees every day in training that give him the toughest time?

'It depends,' he ponders. 'Everyone is this squad, and in this league, is very good. Nico, Didier, Florent Malouda, Salomon Kalou, they are all very good, and the young guys are also growing up and are getting confidence the more they play.

'As you can see Zigic is the biggest, he is a tough guy, but from my side I think he has to adapt to the Premier League and then he can show his best performances in the next years. He can play well, he is strong but not yet ready 100 percent for England.'

The 6ft 8in Birmingham striker is the latest Serbian to arrive on these shores, hailing from a country that enjoys a growing reputation within European football.

Kolarov and Zigic

A first World Cup appearance (In 2006, Serbia & Montenegro also qualified) in the summer has been followed up by Partizan Belgrade's qualification for this season's Champions League, and though they are currently pointless in Arsenal's group, the signs are good as more and more talent emerges from a country whose population is a little over seven million - around the same as London.

'From the beginning of the qualification for the World Cup we started to play very well, and all the guys deserve to come and play in the big clubs in England,' Ivanovic tells us. It is worth noting that Serbia qualified for South Africa ahead of France, who despite their calamitous showing, boast a raft of top talent.

'Now there is also Aleksandar Kolarov at Manchester City and Milan Jovanovic at Liverpool. For them it is a time for adaptation, to prepare for English football, and for me also it was like that,' he explains, adding that it was eight months in England before he even made a Chelsea debut.

'Nemanja Vidic also needed time, but now he is here for five years and playing very well as Manchester United captain. We have to show our quality like a team, every single player, for Serbian football.

'I think it is great to have six or seven players in the Premier League, the best league in the world. It is great, and we all chat and speak a lot. For the new guys it is a surprise how things work here and how everything is going. Everyone has to adapt but I think they will be fine.'

One man from the east who has begun to show his class in recent weeks is Yury Zhirkov, currently one of our absentees, but one who covered admirably in central midfield with other team-mates missing.

It seems the Russian is settling to life in England after a year spent acclimatising. Zhirkov is still regularly seen trailing Ivanovic around the Cobham corridors, but for this interview at least he was nowhere to be seen.

'I don't know where he is!' Ivanovic joked. 'Yury has been playing very well, and at the moment he is happy but from my side I think he can still play better than this.

'He has just been gaining some confidence and every game he shows that he is ready now to play. He is stronger mentally than when he arrived and he can play better and better, so I hope he gets fit again quickly because he can help the team.

'We are friends, we speak Russian together and of course at the moment he is starting to speak English, he is just a little bit scared and needs some more confidence, but he understands a lot more than before.'

Sheva is back at Cobham

It was just like the old days at Cobham last week when the pair became a three once more, as Andriy Shevchenko dropped by during a holiday.

'It was good to see Sheva again, he was very important to me when I came to England and is a good friend, he really helped me with the language and the culture,' Ivanovic says, readying himself to leave for home.

So it was nice to turn back the clock for a little while and meet old friends, but now it is time for Ivanovic to look ahead to the return of current Chelsea players, and a return to victories in the league.

You'll be able to hear more on that subject from Ivanovic on Sunday morning before the Newcastle game. He will also be at the Megastore on Friday for a signing session.