Chelsea prayers fly to the wings
Some say they can make the difference between a very good side and a great one, while others argue they are able to transform a team's status from one liked to one loved. A good winger is, to be sure, a priceless commodity.
Stanley Matthews, Garrincha, George Best, Johan Cruyff and Roberto Donadoni are among the very few to have perfected the role down the years. On Tuesday, Chelsea will visit Barcelona's Nou Camp in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League last 16 hoping their own quartet can eclipse the show put on by Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho at Stamford Bridge.
Close to the fans
The old-fashioned winger is something of a dying breed. With the game's increased speed, greater tactical awareness and constant capture - via television - of the tricks of the trade, the effectiveness of having a player hug the touchline and wait for the ball in readiness to run past his full-back has diminished dramatically. Even before Alf Ramsey's "wingless wonders" were crowned world champions in 1966 , the winger's craft had been forced to evolve with the times.
The word itself, which like most positions on the football field was originally borrowed from military terms, has now largely been replaced by wide midfielder. Yet the magic, the wizardry of the true winger still conjures up great excitement among spectators, and when the chips are down, as they are for Chelsea in the tie, attacking from the sides can often be the best form of defence.
Jose Mourinho appears to be a fan. For all the empirical data he receives on tackles won, headers lost and miles run, the Portuguese has come to rely on his band of wide men to provide the spark needed to unsettle an opposing defence. Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, Joe Cole and, less frequently, Shaun Wright-Phillips are the individuals called upon to turn a match around.
Mourinho, like Barcelona's coach Frank Rijkaard, likes to play a 4-3-3 formation rather than a more traditional 4-4-2. It means his wingers act almost as if they were inside forwards, a clever way to use the width of the pitch without losing out defensively. While Rijkaard has asked his more natural forwards, Ronaldinho and Messi, to play out wide, Mourinho has urged his more orthodox wingers, the left-footed Robben and Duff, to bomb forward.
When coupled together the Dutchman and the Dubliner have used their dribbling skills, pace and direct style to intimidate Premier League opponents. Although the pair have been blighted by injury, they've proved a partnership good enough to match that of Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele in midfield or John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho in defence and, just as much as the others, have helped Chelsea create an aura of invincibility.
Robben, 22, was stunning during the first half of last season before missing much of the rest of the campaign, including the Barcelona fixture in February, with a broken toe. And with seven strikes this season he's gradually getting back to his best.
"He's a special player and special players are always a plus." said Mourinho. "Sometimes individual players can open the door for you, and Robben is that kind of player."
Tottenham Hotspur's Dutch coach Martin Jol goes even further: "He is the best (Dutch) player since Cruyff...and in Holland when a player is compared to Cruyff, you know it's worth something."
Born in the north of the Netherlands, the former PSV man identities his method to the very best.
"The instinct to play forward is my style and also my power," he said. "In that way, you can compare me with Ronaldinho. We both look for the shortest way to goal."
Down but not out
It was Duff who grabbed Chelsea's crucial goal in Barcelona last year. After two excellent seasons following a big-money move from Blackburn Rovers in 2003, the 27-year-old has had a more troubled 2005/6 season partly due to a series of niggling injuries.
"I'm never happy," he told The Irish Examiner late last year. "The team hasn't played well recently and I haven't played well either."
Although way ahead of the chasing back in the league, Chelsea have been criticised for struggling to kill off teams as they did last season. And the blond Irishman has been forced to back-track more than he is accustomed to. "You can't really win," he said. "People say I defend too much now but they were complaining a few years ago that I couldn't defend."
However Duff remains optimistic about his side's chances of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals: "They (Barcelona) are beatable. I saw Atletico Madrid beat them 3-1 a few weeks ago. If they can do it, why can't Chelsea?"
Like Robben, he chooses his opposite number as the player to watch out for: "I thought he (Lionel Messi) was awesome for a player who has just turned 18. He was so good it was ridiculous - he was just great to watch. He's a fabulous player."
While the speedy Shaun Wright-Phillips has rarely threatened to make an impact since his big-money summer transfer from Manchester City, Joe Cole has gradually taken on board his coach's advice to curb his individualism, winning some rave reviews into the bargain. Although a natural playmaker, the former West Ham man has taken to a wide position so well that he looks odds on to play there for England in Germany.
"He's a more mature player these days," praised England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson after Cole's winning-goal performance against Uruguay on Wednesday. "He knows when to dribble with the ball and when to pass. And he defends too now. I was hoping that he'd make that extra step and he has."
Slower but more creative than Robben or Duff, Cole likes to cut inside onto his favoured right foot and has gradually grabbed goals too. This season he has hit the net 10 times.
The 24-year-old's growing maturity is reflected in his ambition. "You need to win the Champions League to be a big club, that's the benchmark, that's what people look at," he said. "Some people outside Europe will only watch Champions League games and that's the way to market your club and show yourself as a team."
They may not yet rank among the Latos, Jairzinhos or Stoitchkovs of this world but if Chelsea's wingers can inspire victory over Barcelona on Tuesday and with the World Cup just over three months away now, they will have enhanced their chances of joining a very exclusive club.