The delights of the Europa league beckon for Chelsea after the defence of our champions league crown ended with a group stage exit, resulting in our entry to into the round of 32 in Europe’s second club competition.
Whilst many amongst our own support, as well as this countries press have derided the competition, it is another chance for European glory. I would love to see us go on to lift the trophy in the Amsterdam Arena in May, which if we could achieve would make us the first side to win the Europa league the season after clinching the champions league. There will also be many numbering our support who will happily inform those with short memories that it wasn’t that long ago that we would be thrilled to be in Europe at all, never mind with such mouth watering trips to Prague, followed by the possibility of Amsterdam in the round of 16 for our travelling contingent to enjoy.
We certainly have history in the previous iterations of this competition, as well as some unfinished business. Our first ever foray into European competition was in the first guise of this tournament, the inter cities fairs cup. This came in season 1958/59, where we overcame BK Frem in round one, before a 4-2 aggregate defeat in the second round to Ville De Belgrade. Our next European adventure was also in this competition, coming in the 65-66 season. This is as close as we have got to winning the tournament, as we reached the semi finals, only to lose in a play off in what was the first instalment of our rivalry with Barcelona. Some of our all time classic European encounters came in this run to the semi finals. Our legendary 4-1 first round first leg win against Roma that included a Terry Venables hat trick, followed by the backs to the wall 0-0 draw in the second leg. A match played in a toxic atmosphere, with missiles thrown at the players, and the team coach windows smashed after the match! AC Milan were famously beaten on the toss of a coin at the San Siro in round three as Ron Harris called right after a 1-1 play off score line preceded by a 3-3 aggregate draw. Another in the early history of classic Stamford Bridge European nights was had in the semi against Barca, where a 2-0 first leg defeat at the Nou Camp was levelled up with a reversal of the score line, including an own goal from the father of Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina! Unfortunately our hopes ended in a 5-0 play off defeat at the Nou Camp.
We didn’t return to the competition until 2000, where we competed for three consecutive seasons in what was now named the UEFA cup. What followed were three extremely depressing early round eliminations. A round 1 defeat against St Gallen, with the gut wrenching leg break that ended Di Matteo’s career in the second leg. Hapoel Tel Aviv sent us out in round 2 in the 01-02 season after a 3-1 aggregate defeat, the away leg notorious for the refusal to travel by a number of our first team squad due to terrorist threats. This incidentally resulted in the only Chelsea start for Joel Kitamirike! Our last appearance in the competition until this Thursday’s away match in Prague was the painful 4-2 defeat away at Viking Stavanger in front of 5,529 fans at the Stavanger Stadion.
A decent showing in the Europa league would be welcome, and against Sparta Prague we have realistic ambitions of progressing into the next round. We have only met them twice before, our two matches coming in the 2003-04 Champions league group stage. A late William Gallas goal gave us a win in what was a tight match in Prague, with the home match finishing 0-0, our progress to the knock out phase had been assured before the fixture.
Sparta progressed in second place from a group that included Lyon and last seasons finalists Athletic Bilbao, and they took points from both sides, Lyon topping the group. They lie third in the Czech league at present after 16 matches, 3 points behind leaders Viktoria Plzen. Martin Hasek’s side will be well organised and hard to break down, they have only shipped 12 goals in the league so far. Czech international Vaclav Kadlec will be a danger, with 4 goals and an assist in their Europa matches thus far, while a familiar face will be our former midfielder and Premier league champion from 2005 Jiri Jarosik. Former West Bromwich Albion striker Roman Bednar completed a move to Prague in January, but it is unsure whether he’ll feature.
As good as Sparta Prague’s form has been this season, the biggest plus for us is that they are in the middle of an extended winter break form the Czech league. They don’t resume domestic hostilities until the 24th of February. Their last league match took place in December. They have been winless in friendly matches on their European training camp in the mean time, and we should have a fitness advantage over them in both legs as the matches’ progress.
Hopefully our 4-1 win over Wigan acts as a turning point in recent form, a worrying inability to kill matches of when on top, combined with lapses defensively late on in matches have cost us dear of late.
Terry remains an injury doubt after the relapse of his knee injury, while Mikel and Moses are unlikely to feature after winning the African cup of nations with Nigeria on Sunday.
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