Reaction from Chelsea officials and fans to Thursday’s Champions League group stage draw has been largely positive. Chelsea clearly feel they can beat anyone at the moment and that is hardly surprising.
Chelsea’s first group stage game will take place in Slovakia, against MSK Zilina. The clubs met in the final qualifying round of the 2003 Champions League, Chelsea winning 5-0 on aggregate, so are not total strangers. Yet those Chelsea fans who make a return visit to Zilina seven years on will wonder if they’re in the same place. The ground and its surroundings have been transformed. The approach is now dominated by a vast Holiday Inn, not quite Chelsea Village perhaps but certainly a change from the tumble-down buildings that were there before. As for the inside, in 2003 Chelsea fans were in a section of the East Stand. At the time, the facilities there were just about the best the ground could boast, which really is not saying much. To left and right were temporary open seating areas while opposite was the antique main stand with its row of obstructing pillars. Now, the ground is entered through electronic turnstiles and there are four smart, new, covered stands. At 11,000 the capacity remains small by Champions League standards but is almost double what it was in 2003. Chelsea supporters with good memories might recall the nearby ice-hockey stadium and Duben hill, still visible behind the North Stand, but little else will seem familiar.
Some things don’t change. The 2003 match sold out in hours and in dubious circumstances, many tickets finding their way onto the black market, but Zilina struggled to even half-fill the ground for Slovak league games. Similarly, last Saturday the club had an intriguing home Corgon Liga fixture with leaders Senica which drew a crowd of just 3,500. The coming Chelsea game, in contrast, will again see a packed ground and it won’t only be visiting fans who struggle to name the home players. At least Zilina pledge to take better care of their season-ticket holders this time.
As for the Zilina team, it’s a solid compact side which has become skilled at playing in Europe. The coach is former Czech international Pavel Hapal who once played in the Champions League for Sparta Prague, the side Zilina overcame in this season’s play-off. (Just to complete this irony, Sparta’s coach, Jozef Chovanec, is Slovak and comes from a village 30km west of Zilina.)
There were no real star players at Zilina until the arrival of Gambian striker Momodou Ceesay earlier this month. Ceesay, once on Chelsea’s books, might just be the best ever 6ft 5in gymnast. He scored the only goal of the Sparta home leg with a quite brilliant scissors kick. The goalkeeper, 21 year-old Martin Dubravka, is an excellent prospect and the defence is solid. In the case of Mario Pecalka, it is also not above a little intimidation ; Pecalka upset Aston Villa fans with his unsubtle ‘targetting’ of Ashley Young in a 2008 UEFA Cup tie. Issiako Bello (from Benin) and captain Robert Jez usually play in central midfield. Both are fine technical players but are not normally backed up by a holding midfielder. If they are against Chelsea, it will represent quite a tactical switch by Hapal. Alongside Ceesay is Tomas Oravec, a tall striker who played for Artmedia Bratislava in the 2005 Champions League. Until Ceesay’s arrival, Oravec could be credited with having a ‘good touch for a big man’ but the Gambian has raised the bar for that attribute. Oravec does have a good goalscoring record, though.
As champions of their league and with a surprisingly impressive recent European record, Zilina deserve Chelsea’s respect but few in Slovakia expect anything other than defeat against Ancellotti’s team. Personally, I would venture as far as a prediction that the Slovaks will fare more respectably than West Brom and Wigan but still won’t shake Chelsea’s self-assurance too much. Anyway, Chelsea fans, whatever disorientation they might feel when they see Zilina’s new-look ground, will hopefully enjoy themselves.