FA Cup Round 4 – 26 January 1997 – Chelsea 4 Liverpool 2
For the younger Chelsea fan, whose memory does not stretch back to the Seventies and Eighties, this must surely be the seminal domestic cup clash between the two sides.
It was Ruud Gullit’s first season in charge and, backed by some big money signings, the manager was making an impressive fist of his first managerial role. One thing hadn’t changed, though, and that was that Liverpool went into the game as favourites, as Roy Evans’ mob sat at the top of the Division One table as we approached the end of January. Of course, they didn’t win the title.
Somewhat controversially, Gullit left Mark Hughes on the bench, preferring to start the out-of-form Gianluca Vialli alongside Gianfranco Zola in attack. Evans, for his part, was happy to put faith in an attacking policy that saw Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman all given licence to rip into a Chelsea defence that appeared to be on the brink of collapse come half-time. Goals from the loathsome Collymore and the, er, loathsome Fowler gave Liverpool a two-goal lead at the interval – a lead that could easily have been doubled but for the profligacy of MacManaman, who should have put the game out of Chelsea’s reach before he half-time whistle had even blown. Nevertheless, his best mate’s wastefulness did not deter Fowler from gesturing a 2-0 scoreline with his fingers to Frank Lebeouf as the players made their way off the pitch for a slice of orange and a wee-wee. Ho hum, Robbie. What goes around, comes around.
He may have had little option really, but Gullit’s masterstroke was to throw Hughes into the action for the second-half, replacing Scott Minto as the Chelsea manager gambled on going with three at the back for the rest of the game. What transpired was one of the most memorable, inspirational and downright enjoyable 45 minutes of recent history. One half of football that had Stamford Bridge rocking
Naturally, it was Hughes who got the comeback underway, firing a low shot past David James from the edge of the box; and equally inevitably, it was the former Manchester United striker whose determined challenge and quick lay-off set the ball up for a wondrous left-foot strike from Zola, which swerved out of the reach of a full-stretch James and into the top corner of the net.
One player who had only shown glimpses thus far in his Chelsea career of his renowned talent was Gianluca Vialli, who had fallen from grace somewhat after the signing of Zola, and the little Sardinian’s subsequent pairing with Hughes, which had paid off handsomely. Rumours had already begun to circulate of Vialli’s frustration with Gullit, but his first-half performance would have done little to persuade the Dutchman that he had erred when leaving the Italian legend out previously. One opportunity spurned by Vialli in the first-half had been particularly wasteful, but as Hughes and Zola combined to put Chelsea back into the game, Vialli suddenly emerged from the shadows to become the hero of the Bridge with two goals which shattered Liverpool, and had the Stamford Bridge faithful believing that a first major cup win in 26 years was now a realistic possibility.
Vialli’s first goal came courtesy of a calm finish after Dan Petrescu had crafted an opening with a neat pass, and his second was a firm header from a Zola free-kick. In the aftermath of Vialli’s second goal, Liverpool’s Mark Wright stood in apparent shock, his face a picture of confusion, while the TV cameras homed in on a distraught teenage Liverpool fan, who was weeping openly (and hilariously) as, once again, his team’s cup dreams were shattered at Stamford Bridge. And on the subject of cry babies, let’s go back to the incident at half-time, when Robbie Fowler signalled with his fingers to Frank Lebeouf that his side were leading 2-0. Just before the final whistle blew, Petrescu was upended by Collymore, earning a free-kick for the Blues. Collymore, who had obviously had a dog of a day, couldn’t resist having a little chip at Petrescu, who responded by showing the Liverpool mentalist four fingers on one hand and two on the other – and who should suddenly appear and start whingeing and bleating at our Romanian superstar for his act of petulance? Yes, that’s right: Robbie Fowler. Graeme Le Saux, I salute you.
Of course, many supporters will consider that last season’s Champions League semi-final win over the Scousers was the best and most satisfying of them all, but that is too recent to be included in a Back in the Day piece. It did, however, give us some of the most iconic images of the 2007/08 season: John Arne Riise heading powerfully and embarrassingly past Pepe Reina in front of the Kop; Frank Lampard bravely converting a penalty before collapsing in tears following the recent death of his mother; and Didier Drogba mocking Rafael Benitez after his two goals sent Chelsea through to the Moscow final, Benitez having earlier criticised the Ivorian for his diving exploits, whilst turning a blind eye when Torres and Gerrard are equally guilty of such antics.
We’ve come a long way since our struggling Division One team and our mid-table Division Two side earned unexpected cup victories over Liverpool. This time we go into the match at Stamford Bridge as favourites. Come on you Blues – it’s time to knock them out of the cup (again). We’ve got a ‘istoree of this sort of thing, you know.
Kelvin is the author of Celery! Representing Chelsea in the 1980s