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Old Man Trouble: Samuel Eto'o at Chelsea

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Happy birthday, Samuel Eto’o!

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Clive Rose

Two days before Samuel Eto’o’s 55th 36th 33rd birthday, the former Barcelona and Inter Milan star marked the occasion by scoring his 300th professional goal, the winner in what ended up being a 4-0 rout over Tottenham Hotspur. It was a tidy finish after a Jan Vertonghen error, the sort of chance the striker’s rarely missed during his long career, and he celebrated the goal by running over the the corner flag and doing his best decrepit old man impression:

It was a reference, of course, to private joke two weeks prior, caught on camera and then broadcast by French television:

The problem with Chelsea is we lack a scorer. I have one [Eto'o] but he's 32. Maybe 35, who knows?

Call it the joke heard round the world. The comments immediately brought on condemnation from the British press, who claimed that it ‘overshadowed’ Chelsea’s trip to Galatasaray, while other theories held that Mourinho was caught on purpose to fire up his toothless centre forwards. Former Cameroonian coach Claude Leroy claimed Eto’o was ‘very angry’ about the age dig, some even went so far as to call Mourinho a racist. It was, in short, A BIG DEAL.

And so naturally the very angry Eto'o went on to score the winning goal against Spurs and make fun of the whole brouhaha in his celebration routine. Since Mourinho's slip, Chelsea's strikers have scored four goals in three games with either one or two assists, depending on how you count penalties won. So that's not so bad.

What’s interesting about Mourinho’s remarks, though, isn’t the joke (or indeed the implicit criticism of Demba Ba and Fernando Torres), it’s the point that Samuel Eto’o is no longer anywhere near the peak of his powers. Five years ago he was one of the most feared strikers in the game, now he’s at Stamford Bridge on a free transfer, almost an afterthought after a summer of huge moves around Europe.

And so he has adapted. Manchester United match aside, Eto’o’s goals have been more a product of raw cunning than anything else. His first real contribution, against Cardiff, was the (possibly illegal) result of a goalkeeper error which eventually resulted in Eden Hazard scoring; he did almost the same thing to Timo Hildebrand in the Champions League shortly thereafter except put it in the net himself. Against Spurs, he was in the right time in the right place to exploit Vertonghen’s calamitous backpass, winning the game not through huge skill but by guile.

Eto'o's game isn't entirely about tricking goalkeeper and waiting for defensive errors, of course. His interplay with the attacking midfielders, Hazard in particular, helps break down packed defences, and that's why he's been Chelsea's favoured centre forward for home matches, which usually see teams hide in their own penalty box. With nine goals for the Blues -- all at home -- he's certainly no longer a great scorer, but the adjustments he's made to remain a useful player despite losing some of that raw physical ability has been fascinating.

Samuel Eto'o will not be often remembered for his time at Chelsea. His tenure at the Bridge a footnote on the end of a phenomenal career that's seen him lift the Champions League more often than the likes of Lionel Messi. But he's still making a mark (anyone who scores a hattrick against Manchester United will do that, I suppose), and it's been fascinating to see the changes between the Eto'o-who-was and the Eto'o we see today.

So, happy birthday, old man Eto'o. It's been a pleasure to have you with us so far this year.