The rise of Chelsea Football Club, from a team that was promoted to the top flight in the late 80s, back after a long layoff, to title contenders in the 21st century, had a lot to do with the great foreign players and managers, who came and represented this club. Starting with Gullit, a slew of foreign players came to play for Chelsea and by the turn of the century, Chelsea had a solid bunch of players, who had established the club in the top half of the league. Amongst those foreign imports for Chelsea, no country has had more of an impact than Italy. Starting from Gullit’s purchase of Zola, Vialli and Di Matteo, right up to the coaching reigns of Ranieri and Ancelotti, the Italian influence on Chelsea has been remarkable. Join TheHardTackle as we take a deeper look at the Italian influence on Chelsea, bringing out the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of it.
In 1996, the player who was voted as the best player that has ever played for Chelsea – the little magician, Gianfranco Zola, came in and brought some much needed flair to the Chelsea attack. A player who could play anywhere in the attack, had the kind of trickery that the league had not seen before and a lethal free-kick, along with another great Italian – Robert Di Matteo, who played a big part in Chelsea’s midfield and Gianluca Vialli upfront (Vialli later became the player-manager of the club, and initiated the upswing of the West London outfit). Chelsea won the FA Cup, the Cup Winner’s Cup and the League Cup, with Di Matteo scoring in two finals and Zola scoring the only goal in the Cup Winner’s Cup final. More success followed for Vialli, as he went on to win the UEFA Super Cup the following year, beating the then European Champions, Real Madrid. What looked like the pinnacle of Vialli’s managerial career turned out to be the beginning of a great season and Chelsea’s best in years, as they went on to finish third in the league, just four points adrift of the winners.
This meant Champions League football the following season and a quarter-final finish, with a victory in the home leg against Barcelona, was achievement enough for a club that was really starting to turn heads around Europe. A relatively unknown talent from Italy was brought on loan during this period, in the form of goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, who signed a permanent deal with Chelsea the following year. By the end of Vialli’s tenure the Italian custodian managed to establish himself as Chelsea’s undisputed number one. Vialli won another FA Cup with Di Matteo scored the winner and this was followed by a Charity Shield win over Manchester United the following season, which brought Vialli’s trophy tally to five, just one less than Jose Mourinho’s tally at Chelsea. A suspected feud between the senior team members that included Zola and Vialli and club’s slow start to the 2000-01 season, that included just one win in the first five games, brought an end to the Italian’s managerial tenure at Chelsea as Ken Bates decided to show him the door.
Zola continued to play and perform under the newly appointed manager, yet another Italian – Claudio ‘Tinkerman’ Ranieri. The 2000-01 season also marked the last time Robert Di Matteo would ever play for Chelsea, as early into the season, he suffered a nasty fracture. He spent 18 months on the sidelines, in a futile effort to rehabilitate. Unfortunately, he couldn’t and went into a premature retirement in 2002. When Chelsea played Arsenal in the FA Cup final in 2002, Ranieri gave Di Matteo the honor of leading the side out as the honorary captain. A season later, after having helped Chelsea secure a Champions League qualification once again, Zola, who scored as many as 14 times that season, decided to honor the word that he had given to his native club Cagliari. Despite Roman Abramovich’s requests to be a part of his plans for the club, he chose to bid farewell to the club, where he had his best years and eventually became a legend of the club. His jersey number 25 remains retired in his honor. The following season, Ranieri got money to spend and brought in several new players. Chelsea went on to have its best finish in the league since the 1950s, by finishing 2nd. Although Chelsea’s title challenge ended a little sooner than their league position might suggest, Chelsea had a realistic chance of going all the way in Champions League.
Having beaten Arsenal in an emotional quarter final, Chelsea traveled away to face Monaco in the semi-finals. The English club equalized through Crespo to tie the score at 1-1 and had a man advantage early into the second half. Ranieri tried to go all out for an away win, but ended up making some bizzare decisions in the process – removing Gronkjaer for Veron, bringing on a third striker in Hasselbaink with two already on the pitch and fielding players out of position through all this. The result was an eventual 3-1 win for a 10-man Monaco. Marco Ambrosio, Yet another Italian, who was doing the job in Cudicini’s absence was found wanting on more than one occasion. Cudicini returned for the second leg, but was unable to prevent a Monaco comeback from 2-0 down to make it 2-2 and send Chelsea out of what’s one of Chelsea’s best chances to win the holy grail. Roman and his administration, who seemed to be looking for an alternative for Ranieri, throughout the season, appeared to have had enough and terminated Ranieri’s contract at the end of the season.
Ranieri left Chelsea without any trophies to show, but had built a strong core with the likes of Lampard, Makalele, Terry, Gudjohnsen and others. These gentlemen were ready to take Chelsea that extra mile and finally climb the unconquered peaks that lay ahead of them.
To be continued in Part II.
~ Sushanth Rao