Since his arrival at Stamford Bridge in January 2008, versatile Serbian international defender Branislav Ivanovic has not only established himself as a Chelsea first-team regular but has also gone on to become a cult hero with matchgoing Blues supporters who greatly appreciate his swashbuckling style, buccaneering runs and ability to score important goals.
Last season, Ivanovic racked up 50 appearances for the Blues -- more than any other player. Despite this, with the new campaign scheduled to start in a couple of weeks, there appears to be a question over whether or not he will feature in manager Jose Mourinho's preferred back four, with his name frequently omitted from the suggested starting lineups proposed by pundits.
The root cause of these suppositions is the recent 20-million-pound signing of Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid. A natural left-back, Luis will take the place of right-sided Cesar Azpilicueta, who capably covered the position when Ashley Cole fell out of favour with Mourinho.
With the pacey Azpilicueta expected to feature on the right side of defence next term, Gary Cahill continuing his partnership with John Terry in the middle and youngster Kurt Zouma also challenging the duo for a place in the team, it's easy to see why 30-year-old Ivanovic might be overlooked.
Could his days at Chelsea be numbered? To understand more about why this is unlikely, it's worth delving into his career as a Blues player.
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Signed from Lokomotiv Moscow for 9.7 million pounds in January of the ill-fated tenure of manager Avram Grant, Ivanovic didn't feature during the remainder of a campaign that resulted in the dismissal of Grant, being forced to wait until September to be given his debut by new boss Luiz Felipe Scolari in a League Cup tie with Portsmouth.
The likes of Jose Bosingwa at right-back and Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry and Alex at centre-back continued to limit Ivanovic's time, however. When Scolari was sacked in February 2009, his replacement, Guus Hiddink, also overlooked the Serbian until the end of March, when Bosingwa sustained a hamstring injury.
Playing at right-back against Liverpool at Anfield in a Champions League quarterfinal, Ivanovic was the hero of the night, heading home twice in a 3-1 victory. Introduced thereafter by Stamford Bridge prematch emcee Neil Barnett as "Two-Goal Bransilav Ivanovic," the Serb's popularity with the Blues crowd rocketed. Nevertheless, Bosingwa's return to fitness meant that Ivanovic returned to the bench.
When Carlo Ancelotti was installed as Chelsea manager for the 2009-10 campaign, Bosingwa was again initially favoured at right-back by the new boss. A knee injury ended the Portuguese's season early, and Ivanovic seized his chance and became an integral part of the Blues side that won the league and FA Cup double.
The following season, with Bosingwa fit again, injuries to John Terry and Alex saw Ivanovic regularly deployed at centre-back, a position in which he excelled. Goals were a regular feature of his game and cemented his relationship with the fans.
The 2011-12 season was harsh on Ivanovic, who once more played a commanding role in a topsy-turvy campaign that began with yet another new manager in Andre Villas-Boas and ended under the stewardship of Roberto Di Matteo. A booking in the second leg of Chelsea's Champions League semifinal tie with Barcelona meant Ivanovic was suspended for the final and missed out on the glorious triumph over Bayern Munich. Consolation came at the end of the following season when he headed home the winning goal for a Rafa Benitez-managed Chelsea side against Benfica in the Europa League final.
Ivanovic has been a model of consistency for Chelsea -- good in the air, strong on set pieces and a combative leader of men; his passionate, loyal, never-say-die performances for the Blues mark him down as a rare beast in the fickle world of modern football.
In preseason, Mourinho has taken a good look at all the defensive permutations open to him and will continue to do so. Ivanovic won't give up his place without a fight, and Chelsea supporters won't give up on Ivanovic. The question the Blues boss has to ask himself is, When the going gets tough -- and it will -- who's going to put a shift in and battle hard for victory?
Two-Goal Branislav Ivanovic.