ON Wednesday, Didier Drogba will return to the arena where, nearly a decade ago, he announced himself on the European stage.
His team-mate Wesley Sneijder will be returning to the city where three years ago he tasted European glory.
However, standing between the Galatasaray duo and a place in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals would be the man who mentored them; Jose Mourinho.
The match between Galatasaray and Real Madrid might not have the history with the two sides having met just once in Europe’s premier club competition — in the quarter-finals in 2001 when Real progressed 5-3 on aggregate.
But the sub-plot of Mourinho meeting two of his former protégés makes the tie an intriguing one.
Real director Emilio Butragueno, though, is optimistic friendships of the past will count for nothing when the two sides collide with Mourinho’s desire for victory remaining undeterred.
“They [Drogba, Sneijder and Mourinho] have an extraordinary relationship, but that happens quite often, and now they have different goals and they will do their best to help Galatasaray,” he told football website Goal.com after the draw for the quarter-finals was made two weeks ago.
“Mourinho will of course want us to be here again for the semi-final draw and before the game and after the game I’m sure [they’ll talk], but during the game we will be focused on our goals.”
Goals — and crucial goals — is what Drogba is famous for.
Incidentally, the Ivorian striker scored his first Champions League goal against Real Madrid at their Santiago Bernabeu stadium in September 2003 when he was an Olympique Marseille player.
At the end of that season, Mourinho, who had taken FC Porto to Champions League glory, moved to Chelsea and his marquee signing after arriving in London was Drogba.
At Chelsea, Mourinho transformed Drogba from a talented prodigy to a top class striker as the pair won two successive English Premier League crowns.
But they weren’t going to stay together for long.
After three trophy-laden seasons with Chelsea, club owner Roman Abramovic sacked Mourinho for not getting close to winning the Champions League, which had become the ‘Holy Grail’ for the big-spending Londoners with Drogba describing his departure as “losing a member of the family”.
For a little while, the decision seemed to have produced instant dividends.
That very season, under caretaker manager Avram Grant, Chelsea reached the Champions League final in Moscow.
It was the night that Drogba, though, would be left to rue.
Sent off in extra-time in the final against Manchester United, the Ivorian had to painfully watch his side lose it in the ensuing penalty shootout to their Premier League rivals.
The following summer, Mourinho joined Inter Milan and although his side were dominant in Italy in his first season, they were woeful in Europe.
That was until the Portuguese signed Sneijder from Real.
The Dutch midfielder was sold to Inter by a Real side who had just signed Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka for world record transfer fees.
Mourinho transformed Sneijder from a player who had not quite lived up to his potential at Real Madrid to one of the most highly rated players in world football with the Dutch midfielder the focal point of the Portuguese tactician’s attacking triumvirate of Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito.
Inter won the treble that season with the highlight being their first Champions League win since 1965 at the Santiago Bernabeu.
With Mourinho swapping Milan for Madrid the following season, Sneijder — who once side he was willing to die for the Portuguese — and Inter struggled as a managerial merry-go-round ensued.
Last May, it was Drogba’s moment of glory as he scored the leveler minutes from time in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich before scoring the winning penalty in the shootout as Chelsea were crowned European champions for the first time in their history.
An ill-fated spell in China meant Drogba joined Turkish giants Galatasaray in January where he was joined by Sneijder who had fallen out of favour at Inter.
“I didn’t expect to be back in the Champions League,” Drogba told this week’s UEFA magazine. “But I have a special relationship with the competition and last season I finally won it which was the peak of my career.”
Now, the Ivorian —along with Sneijder — is bidding for a Champions League double.
Two weeks ago, Mourinho was in Turkey to watch Galatasaray in action against Kayserispor and he met with Sneijder, who warned him of the task ahead.
“It was great to see Jose again,” Sneijder told Dutch daily De Telegraaf. “He’s been very important for me because thanks to him I’ve won the Champions League but I gave him a message: watch out for Galatasaray.”
Who of the two is Mourinho’s favourite?
“I’m not going to tell who my favourite player is because I have had a lot of truly special players,” Mourinho told Real Madrid TV last week. “...but if I had to choose one I might go for Didier. As a player he is out of this world. I would like to have him by my side, so just imagine.”
Mourinho is aiming to become the first coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs with the city of Madrid expecting the Decima — a tenth European title.
But overcoming two of his protégés wouldn’t be easy for the Portuguese gaffer.
The second-leg of the quarter-final tie is on April 9.