The Cup with the Big Ears
There are few stories in football as captivating and heart-breaking as the one about Chelsea and its love affair with the premier European club competition – The UEFA Champions League.
A Chelsea fan may openly say that the Blues are not inferior to either Manchester United or Liverpool, at least in England, but deep down he or she knows that there’s still something missing – something that has eluded the Stamford Bridge club, despite coming excruciatingly close on not less than five occasions, in the last seven years.
Chelsea began their tryst with UCL in the 1999-2000 season, after finishing 3rd in the Premier League the previous year, and became the only English club to reach the Quarter-finals stage in its first-ever attempt. The highlights of that campaign were a draw against Milan at the San Siro, a 5-0 demolition of Galatasaray in Turkey, and a 3-1 victory over Spanish giants Barcelona at the Bridge.
That was more than 10 years ago; in the last decade only two things have changed – managers and the manner of exits – while the desire for the big ears has only grown.
Four Semi-finals and a Final – Pain, Anger, Disappointment and Missed Opportunities
Chelsea v Monaco | Semi-Final | Season 2003-04
“I’m very proud of my players, they were fantastic.” – Claudio Ranieri
Chelsea, under Claudio Rarieri, was left to rue missed opportunities as Monaco, managed by former Blue Didier Deschamps, came from behind to draw level at Stamford Bridge, thereby showing Londoners the door and dashing their hopes of reaching the final.
Chelsea v Liverpool | Semi-final | Season 2004-05
Soon after leading Porto to an unprecedented Champions League success, Jose Mourinho was appointed the manager by Roman Abramovich. In his first season in-charge he led the Blues to their first Premiership title after 50 years. The newly-crowned English Champions then travelled to Anfield after playing out a nil-nil draw at home, but a Luiz Garcia “ghost-goal” was enough to send Liverpool into their first final in 20 years.
“It was a goal from the moon. The linesman scored the goal. No one knows if that shot went over the line and you must be 100 per cent. I felt the power of Anfield, it was magnificent. I felt it didn’t interfere with my players but maybe it interfered with the other people and maybe it interfered with the result. But you should ask the linesman why he gave the goal. The best team lost. After they scored only one team played, the other one just defended for the whole game.” – Jose Mourinho
“I don’t know whether it was a goal or not. But if the goal isn’t given it could well be a red card for Petr Cech for the foul on Milan Baros, and a penalty.” – Rafa Benitez
Both managers made their point, but at the end of the day, it was Chelsea that was left licking its wounds. This was the start of an intensely tactical European battle between the two clubs, and an annual knock-out UCL fixture became the order of the day.
Chelsea v Liverpool | Semi-Final | Season 2006-07
In Mourinho’s third season in-charge, the two English rivals canceled out each other over the two legs and the second semi-final between Chelsea and Liverpool in three years was to be settled by penalties. This time ‘injustice’ didn’t come to haunt the Blues, as they choked and self-destructed themselves. Dirk Kuyt scored from the crucial spot-kick, after Arjen Robben and Geremi had missed for the Londoners.
“It’s a moment when everybody has to be strong. My players have a lot of reasons to be proud. We were the best team today, even against a team only playing for the Champions League.” – Jose Mourinho
It was the third semi-final ouster in four years for the Blues, and the fans were left distraught yet again.
Chelsea v Manchester United | Final | season 2007-08
In September, 2007, Mourinho departed; he was replaced by Director of Football Avram Grant. Despite the managerial change, Chelsea took the title fight to the last day of the season, but eventually came up short against a superior Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Manchester United.
In the Champions League, after finally overcoming Liverpool at the Semi-final hurdle, the Blues faced familiar foes from Manchester in Moscow. This was the mother of all heart-breaks.
John Terry had everything in his own hands, or so he believed. He walked up to take the spot-kick that could have given Chelsea its first-ever crown, but he slipped and the ball crashed against the cross-bar, with that sank a million blue hearts.
Manchester United won the Champions League on that fateful night in Moscow. To this day, that night remains the saddest moment for any Chelsea fan.
Yet another heart-break..
Chelsea v Barcelona | Semi-final | Season 2008-09
Memories of Moscow bring back agony, but memories of the second leg against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, bring back anger; nothing but anger.
Between the two matches, a lot had changed at the Bridge – Avram Grant had left, Luiz Felipe Scolari was appointed and sacked, and Guus Hiddink was called-in as a caretaker manager.
Chelsea, under the able guidance of Hiddink, returned from Camp Nou after facing an all-conquering Barcelona side, unscathed. The team that was blessed with the holy trinity of world football and that used to score goals for fun, couldn’t find the net against the visitors. The performance was a tactical masterclass from the Londoners.
In the return leg, Essien scored a fabulous goal to give the Blues a vital lead. Chelsea, in particular Didier Drogba, had two opportunities to put the game beyond the Catalans, but he failed to capitalize. As many as four penalty claims were overlooked by referee Thomas Henning Ovrebo.
Deep into stoppage time, with the prospect of an all-English rematch against Manchester United looming large, Iniesta scored a spectacular equalizer to send Barcelona into the final, on away-goals. Stamford Bridge was stunned, so was every Chelsea supporter on the planet. There were ugly scenes after the game – Ovrebo was surrounded by the players and Drogba did something for which he was rightfully banned for three games.
Till this day, in schools around the world, the word ‘injustice’ is taught citing this very example, and ‘to ovrebo someone’ means to blatantly rob someone in broad daylight. Chelsea was ‘ovrebo’ed that day.
Thomas Henning Ovrebo became famous overnight..
“There were three clear penalties and the boys feel that this is an injustice. Emotions are running very high with the players because it’s not just one decision in doubt, it’s several.” – Guus Hiddink
“The ball touched my arm. The referee decided it wasn’t a penalty and one has to respect the referee’s decisions.” – Gerard Pique
That’s why Chelsea craves for Champions League. If there’s one trophy that every fan yearns for, it’s this very trophy.
The saga resumes tonight, Chelsea will face MSK Zilina, in a Group F encounter. There’s something special about this European season though – the final is at New Wembley, London. So, that’s an added incentive if there were not many already.
New Wembley has been kind to the club from South-west London thus far, with Chelsea winning three FA Cup finals in the last four years on the very same ground. If the club manages to overcome the multi-headed demon, which will most definitely stand in its path, and reach the final, it’s the closest the players will ever get to a place called home in a Champions League final.
The squad is balanced enough; individually, there might not be a “World Player of the Year” within the ranks, but as a collective unit, the team is not inferior to any opposition. The ruthlessness by which the English champions have dispatched sides, ever since Carlo Ancelotti took over last summer, is a testimony to their potential. Majority of these players have played for years together now; that has helped to create a telepathic understanding between them – they play for each other and for the team.
Every year, a verdict is passed that reads “Chelsea is the favorites to win the Champions League; for a set of players, it’s their last opportunity to lift the cup.” This puts addition pressure on club, the players, the managers, and even the fans, even before the team takes the field.
For once, let’s allow the team to play without any such grand expectations; the result would be there to be seen.
We fans know that the club would eventually lay its hand on the holy grail, and we will wait for that day. The longer the wait, the sweeter will be the kiss.