No practice just perfect for cool Ballack
As he left the pitch on Saturday afternoon, walking in that languid straight-backed style of his, having scored the goals that beat Manchester United, Michael Ballack winked at the Chelsea supporters.
It was the wink of a man who was telling them, "I'm the man". Of a man with confidence and self-belief oozing through those ice-cold veins. Of a man who could unflappably, happily wind up his team-mate Didier Drogba but retain his own composure enough to ignore Edwin van der Sar's attempts to unsettle him and dispatch that 86th-minute penalty.
Penalties. Here are two stories about Ballack that show just what a cool – and, for some, maddening – customer he is. After Chelsea beat Fenerbahce to reach the last four of the Champions League, the club's two Portuguese players, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira, sat watching extra time in the tie involving their former club, Porto, and the German side Schalke. It went to penalties and as they began, Ballack breezed past and commented that there was no point in watching any more as everyone knew what would happen. The Germans would win.
Then last Thursday Chelsea manager Avram Grant mildly upbraided Ballack after training for not practising penalties "in case we need them against Liverpool" (in this week's European Cup semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge).
Ballack's answer was simple: "It only matters when the pressure is on. And I know what I will do."
The pressure was on on Saturday. And Ballack knew what to do. There was no doubt he would beat Van der Sar, certainly not in his mind and probably not in the United goalkeeper's either. Drogba had a word – was it encouragement or a threat? – but Ballack was, as ever, serene. "I'm used to handling this sort of situation," he said afterwards. "I've taken a lot of important penalties in my career. Yes, it's not a problem for me in this situation." Such serenity can be maddening.
It has sometimes been interpreted as not caring, of somehow being above the helter-skelter hubbub of the Premier League. The 31-year-old midfielder gives the air that he could take to the field chomping on a cigar if he wanted to. Grant loves Ballack and wants him to command a central role. But, then, so did Jose Mourinho when he signed the German captain from Bayern Munich. It's a commonly peddled misconception that Ballack was just Roman Abramovich's signing, a vanity purchase along with Andrei Shevchenko.
He wasn't. Mourinho wanted him too and was convinced that he could be the player, because of his belief, because of his mentality and because of his ability, who would push Chelsea further and capture the European Cup. For the biggest prize, Mourinho reasoned, he needed to add big-game players to the Chelsea mix.
It turned sour between the two. Ironically that accelerated after Ballack was injured, in March last year. His ankle took an inordinate amount of time to heal, it seemed he was destined to leave, and the rift between the two festered. Now Ballack returns to Tyneside next Monday ready to propel Chelsea towards an unlikely title, should United continue to falter.
Despite his success, he has also experienced failure – losing the Bundesliga twice, when with Bayer Leverkusen (in 2000 and 2002) – when the finishing line was in sight. Which makes him all the more dangerous.
"All the pressure is on them now," Ballack said of United. " Even last week it looked to everyone as though they were champions and no one could catch them. But now we've closed the gap and the pressure is right on them."
It was, Ballack said, Chelsea's "best performance of the season" and, crucially of course, it came in their biggest match. The belief is back although it probably never deserted the man who scored those two vital goals.