WORDS WITH: BRANISLAV IVANOVIC
It's been almost six years since Branislav Ivanovic made the move from eastern Europe to west London, and the Serbian defender has been speaking to the official Chelsea website about his position on the pitch, his goal in Amsterdam and his aspirations under the new manager…
Wednesday 15 May 2013. Amsterdam Arena. Two minutes into stoppage time, Juan Mata swings a corner over from the right. The scores are level, one apiece, and it's Chelsea seeking a very late winner in the Europa League final. When Mata takes the corner, Branislav Ivanovic is waiting just in front of the penalty spot. By the time he leaps above two Benfica defenders to head the ball, the Serbian is 10 yards further left. His connection is a good one, straining his neck to direct the ball back in the direction from which it came. Time stands still. Artur, in the Benfica goal, stands still.
The ball loops teasingly towards the far corner. The question is whether it will fall from the Amsterdam sky in time to dip under the Benfica goalkeeper's crossbar. To the ecstasy of the massed ranks of blue behind that goal, and those in blue on the pitch, it does. For the goalscorer, suspended in Munich, redemption.
'It was one of the greatest moments in my career,' Ivanovic recalls, smiling. 'Of course I'll never forget it.'
You get the impression, though, that our versatile defender isn't keen to dwell on what's gone before. As he puts it, 'memories are good, but we don't live for the memories'. It's little surprise, therefore, that his career has followed such a consistently upward trajectory. He secured a move to Lokomotiv Moscow from his native Serbia in 2006, and it was during his time in Russia that he became a regular fixture in the talented Serbian national team. Impressive performances in the Russian Premier League attracted interest from all over Europe, and it was Chelsea that succeeded in acquiring his services in the 2008 January transfer window.
It took time for Ivanovic to make his debut for the club - eight months, in fact - but since working his way into the first team, under Luiz Felipe Scolari, he has flourished on the pitch irrespective of the position he has been asked to play in. The defender is the first to acknowledge that even he's not sure what the club expected from him when he signed for the Blues, but his versatility across the right side of the defence has undoubtedly aided his cause in becoming an enduring fixture in our backline.
'I don't know what position I joined Chelsea as,' Ivanovic laughs. 'I started as a right-back. After that I played centre-back, and after that I moved back to right-back!
'All my career I've moved inside and outside. I'm really happy because it's good for me that I can play both positions. I always try to do my best wherever I play. In the end I'm happy because I like to defend, and I'm really enjoying defending in this team.'
For a man who grew up wanting to be a striker - Ivanovic cites the former Brazil centre-forward Ronaldo as an early inspiration, as well as his father Rade, a professional footballer himself - his transformation to right-back, where he has featured in all but one of our games this season, has been a long one. Fortunately, he has one teammate in particular who has helped in the process.
'For me Ashley [Cole] is the best left-back in the world in the last 10 years. It's a real pleasure to work with him.
'Sometimes it's difficult to learn from him because he's doing everything naturally. There are not a lot of things you can do and be like him. For me he always helps as a good reference. When you have him opposite you on the pitch you have to work hard to synchronise with him and we try to do that.'
In January Ivanovic will celebrate six years at the club, and he's rightfully earned his place as one of the most experienced and longest-serving members of the squad. He hasn't been around quite long enough, though, to have played under Jose Mourinho before, joining the Blues just a few months after the Portuguese's first spell at the club had come to an end.
As is his way, Ivanovic isn't keen to reflect on the managers that he has worked with prior to Mourinho's return. Instead, the focus is on the future. For the Serbian, pensive now as he thinks ahead, that means an improvement in the consistency of our performances, and our results.
'Football is for history, for the fans to remember,' he says. 'Today is another day and we have to focus on the next game.
'It's a big pleasure to play under Jose. It's always a great motivation from his side. We have to push ourselves to improve and we have to motivate ourselves for every single game because he expects that of us, and the club expects that of us.
'It's a big pleasure but there's still a lot of hard work to do. We've played some good games; we've had some defeats, too. The team and our performances can improve, we can do better and I think we'll do it after this international break.'
It's no surprise that Ivanovic leaves you with the feeling that he always wants more. That desire and belief has helped him become as equally adept at right-back as he is at the heart of our defence, and with him at the back there's good reason for Blues supporters to look forward to many more trophy-laden years at Stamford Bridge.
By Rupert Cane.