In August 2003, a Chelsea side with newly acquired billionaire owner Roman Abramovich embarked upon a Champions League campaign which, at the time, was highly publicised and extremely poignant. Just months before, the Blues were reportedly on the brink of financial meltdown, with Champions League qualification – and the millions it adds to a clubs coffers – vital for the club’s survival.
Chelsea entered in the Third Qualifying Round, along with the likes of Newcastle United, Vardar and GAK. Over two legs, Claudio Ranieri’s side needed to negotiate their way past Slovakian side Zilina. With Abramovich’s millions spent over a hectic summer, and a 2-0 first-leg win in the bag, a starting eleven of Carlo Cudicini, Glen Johnson, John Terry, Marcel Desailly, Celestine Babayaro, Jesper Gronkjaer, Frank Lampard, Geremi, Joe Cole, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink secured Chelsea’s place in the Champions League proper with a 3-0 home victory.
That season’s tournament ended in semi-final heartache for Chelsea, losing to Monaco after a shambolic first-leg in the French principality, and seven years later the curse of the Champions League still hangs over the Blues. Along with Terry and Lampard, another man has been there through it all. From 2003 to 2010, Abramovich has been kicking every ball from his seat in the West Stand, confounding the doom-mongers and naysayers who greeted his introduction into English football with a mix of scepticism and cynicism. They all thought he would be gone within a couple of years, leaving Chelsea in the lurch with nothing but two pennies to rub together. But he’s seen the Blues win everything in his time at the club – well, almost everything. Reportedly desperate for Chelsea to secure the Champions League trophy, Abramovich is still waiting…
So perhaps it is fitting that, with arguably the most cohesive and effective squad since the owner’s arrival, having secured the club’s first ever double last season, Chelsea’s 2010/11 Champions League campaign also begins with a meeting against our old friends Zilina.
After last season’s Champions League disappointment, Carlo Ancelotti will be confident of progressing further this time around. With a perfect start so far, Zilina’s arrival on Tuesday should represent another opportunity for his Chelsea side to show their swagger and style. In terms of team news, the big story revolves around Lampard’s fitness, after the influential midfielder’s recent hernia operation. A decision is expected shortly. Michael Essien will be looking to continue his fine form from the weekend – after netting twice against West Ham – and can fill the void left by Lampard if necessary. As is becoming customary, Didier Drogba will miss the first Champions League match through suspension, after picking up a red card against Inter Milan last season.
A full and detailed Zilina profile can be found elsewhere on the site here, but in short, they will put ten men behind the ball and sit back, making it tough for Chelsea to cut through them. That’s really all you need to know.
While the result of this match won’t tell us how far we’ll progress in the Champions League this season, it could be the one we look back upon as the start of something momentous – if we end up reaching the Wembley final on 28 May 2011. Of course, on the flipside, it could just herald another false dawn. The Champions League and Chelsea have had a very tempestuous relationship in the past few years, but the double winners are relentless right now. Anything in their way is likely to get swallowed up in the pursuit of silverware, starting with Zilina on Wednesday night.