THE STORY OF CHELSEA
CHAPTER 8: The Roman Conquest
‘We played really good football, attacking and defensive, we scored a lot of goals, we were winning games and we kept clean sheets. It was a really enjoyable season. We were well balanced and we were rewarded for it winning the title and then Double.’
- Petr Cech
1 July 2003 - the date on which the course of Chelsea’s history changed forever!
It was on that momentous day that Russian businessman Roman Abramovich bought the club from long-standing chairman Ken Bates, and a new era had truly become.
With the same burning ambition and vision for the big time that characterised Chelsea at our birth nearly 100 years earlier, the new owner quickly set about clearing all debt, and that summer he made - at that point - the biggest outlay on players in British football history.
The new signings included serious talents from elsewhere in the Premier League, like Damien Duff and Joe Cole, and a blitz of big-name stars from abroad. The acquisitions of Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele and Adrian Mutu certainly caught the football world’s attention!
In an ode to the new owner, the Russian folk song Kalinka was played before games at Stamford Bridge, with the home crowd clapping enthusiastically and the song building to a rousing crescendo.
Despite briefly topping the table in late autumn, Claudio Ranieri’s Blues had to settle for second place in that first season under the new ownership, behind unbeaten Arsenal. It was still our highest league finish since we won the First Division almost half-a-century earlier.
Our second-ever Champions League campaign ran all the way to the semi-finals and a frustrating two-legged loss to Monaco, but not before we dramatically won at Highbury in the last eight. Wayne Bridge’s late winner at the Clock End ended a long, long run without victory against Arsenal and provided a season high point. It was one off the all-time great Chelsea away nights and an emotional occasion for manager Ranieri, whose tenure was soon to end.
The appointment of Jose Mourinho as manager in 2004 was the catalyst needed to elevate the Blues to England’s very best, just as the self-styled ‘Special One’ had predicted.
Mourinho, fresh from lifting the Champions League trophy with Porto, brought his winners’ mentality to London, plus a persona that intrigued the English media. When he spoke it made splash headlines but the results backed up the drama.
‘I have loved football since I can remember so I understand the evolution of football and the modern needs of football,’ stated Mourinho at his unveiling in June 2004. ‘We have top players and, sorry if I’m arrogant, we have a top manager. I’m a European champion and I think I’m a special one.’
Deploying a 4-3-3 formation with an almost unbeatable defence, versatile midfield and flying wingers, we won the league championship for the first time in 50 years, quite simply blowing our competitors out of the water in the process. The records set - most wins, most home wins, most away wins, fewest goals conceded (15, which still stands) and most points - tell their own story, as does Cech’s 1025 minutes without conceding between December and March.
Central to that team were a core of pre-Abramovich players whose games reached new levels: Academy graduate and newly-appointed captain John Terry, midfield goalscoring machine Frank Lampard, Eidur Gudjohnsen and William Gallas. They were accompanied by a host of elite imports, such as Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba. Indeed, the Cech-Terry-Lampard-Drogba spine would prove the team’s glue for the best part of a decade.
The title-clinching afternoon generations of Chelsea supporters thought they might never see came away to Bolton, where Lampard’s second-half brace had Blues on the pitch, in the stands and watching on television in tears.
It was not the first silverware of the season. That had come two months earlier, in the League Cup final in Cardiff. A late Steven Gerrard own-goal drew us level with Liverpool and took the contest to extra-time, during which goals from Drogba and Mateja Kezman got us over the line.
That Chelsea were now the best team in the land was emphasised when we made it back-to-back titles in our centenary season. Proudly wearing a new club badge featuring the old rampant lion, Mourinho’s men once again proved a cut above. Another unbeaten home season climaxed with a 3-0 thumping of nearest challengers Manchester United in a game lit up by a stunning solo effort from Joe Cole. We had suffered a slight dip in form in spring but when it looked like a wobble was possible, a goal and a man down at home to West Ham, the Blues roared back to win 4-1. It was a sign of that team’s character and quality.
2006/07 brought knockout success in the League Cup and FA Cup. Having been the last team to win the latter competition at the old Wembley, we did likewise at the newly opened and completely rebuilt national stadium, with Drogba’s extra-time goal against Man United clinching the Cup. In a campaign in which he reached new heights and finished as the Premier League’s top goalscorer, it was Drogba’s brace that helped us overcome a deficit against Arsenal in the League Cup final, too. The powerful but skilful Ivorian was now blossoming into one of the very best strikers in the world.
‘Drogba did what all strikers should do and that is score in the biggest games,’ said former foe Jamie Carragher. ‘He scored three winners in the FA Cup final, got the crucial goals in two League Cup finals and who could forget what he did in Munich in the Champions League final? At his best, he was unplayable.’
‘Drogba – one of the best strikers I have seen,’ said former foe Gerard Pique. ‘He had everything. Pace, really strong, good in the air – he was amazing.’
World stars continued to arrive, Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack among them. However, there was to be no third consecutive Premier League title. Injuries, none more serious than the skull fracture suffered by Petr Cech in a match at Reading, severely hampered our efforts, as did an increasing tendency to lose leads. Thankfully Cech returned to good health in good time, wearing head protection that would become a trademark over the rest of his career.
Making it to Moscow
In September 2007, the football world was shocked to learn Mourinho had left his post at Chelsea after an indifferent start to the season and disagreements over transfer policy. Avram Grant, recently appointed the club’s director of football, stepped into the hotseat, ably assisted by former Chelsea great Steve Clarke, who had also been part of Mourinho’s backroom team.
The Blues remained a formidable force and who knows, with better luck and the odd improved performance, could even have won all four major trophies. We took the league title race down to the last day, and the Champions League final to a penalty shoot-out. On both occasions Man United pipped us, most agonisingly in Moscow where during a penalty shoot-out we were a John Terry slip and post’s width away from the greatest glory. An engrossing all-English tie had finished 1-1, Lampard cancelling out Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener.
Earlier in the season we lost the League Cup final to Tottenham, also after extra-time, and were surprisingly beaten by second-tier Barnsley in the last eight of the FA Cup when it looked like the competition draw had opened for us. A season that promised much ended without silverware. Grant departed.
In came Brazilian World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. His attacking side initially met the demands for more stylish football, but by midwinter performances and results had significantly dropped off, and he was relieved of his duties with three months of the season remaining.
The manager of the Russian national team, Dutchman Guus Hiddink stepped in on an interim basis and immediately steadied the ship. After safely negotiating a third-place finish in the league, we won the FA Cup with Drogba and Lampard goals getting the better of a dangerous Everton side.
What was still missing was the Champions League. A fourth agonising semi-final exit, this time to Barcelona, meant there was still more left to achieve for a club that was now consistently one of the tournament favourites.
The big prizes
Regaining the Premier League title after three unsuccessful seasons was also a priority. Carlo Ancelotti, a serial winner in Italy, was appointed as the new permanent head coach in the summer of 2009. His debut season could scarcely have gone better.
After ditching a diamond formation, the experienced Ancelotti reverted to the 4-3-3 shape that had served the team so well for so much of the Abramovich era. With Drogba back to his very best up front and Lampard enjoying the most prolific campaign of his career, the goals flowed. Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda and Salomon Kalou also shone in attack.
Liverpool, Arsenal and, most crucially, Man United were beaten home and away. An early April win at Old Trafford sent us top and we never looked back amid a barrage of goals. In total, we scored seven or more on four occasions that season. The eight netted against Wigan on an astonishing, title-clinching final afternoon took us to a record 103 goals. Drogba finished with 29 in the league, and Lampard 22.
Further glory followed in the FA Cup. Only one goal was needed, a trademark Drogba free-kick enough to beat Portsmouth in English football’s showpiece fixture. In 2009/10 Chelsea had won ‘the Double’ – and we had won it in style!
Matching those heights proved beyond the Blues in 2010/11. A second relatively limp European exit under the Italian, combined with the lowest points tally since Abramovich arrived and an inability to get new signing Fernando Torres firing, spelled the end for Ancelotti.
The club turned to youth. Andre Villas-Boas had been an opposition scout under Mourinho before turning his hand to management. In his first full season, at the age of 33, his Porto side went unbeaten in their league and won the Europa League and Portuguese Cup.
Alas, Villas-Boas could not translate that success to Stamford Bridge. Regularly opting to leave out the more experienced members of the squad, the league title soon slipped beyond reach, and our place in the top four and Champions League was in jeopardy when he was dismissed.
One of his assistants, Roberto Di Matteo, no stranger to winning things at Chelsea when a player here, picked up the baton. The Italian’s first major achievement was to overturn a 3-1 deficit against Napoli in the Champions League round of 16. On what was one of the great Stamford Bridge nights, Branislav Ivanovic crashed home an extra-time winner.
It jolted our European campaign into life and was the first of some never-to-be-forgotten ties en route to our greatest night of all. After somehow beating Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-final, helped by memorable Ramires and Torres goals in Camp Nou, we headed to play Bayern Munich in their own backyard. Drogba signed off in style with the last-gasp equalising goal and winning penalty, Cech saved three spot-kicks and Lampard skippered us to a remarkable Champions League triumph in the suspended Terry’s absence.
To add extra gloss, we also lifted the FA Cup that season. Drogba notched what proved the winner with his fourth Cup final goal in as many appearances, Liverpool his latest victims.
Drogba departed that summer, and the underwhelming defence of our European crown was one of the reasons Di Matteo was sacked after a 3-0 loss at Juventus in November 2012. For the first we did not make it out of our Champions League group, and we were also unsuccessful in the Super Cup and Club World Cup.
Our maiden involvement in the latter competition, in Japan, was early on in the interim management of Rafael Benitez. He oversaw the majority of the busiest campaign in our history - a remarkable 69 games - and steered us to a respectable third-place league finish.
As the season reached a climax, Lampard spectacularly broke Bobby Tambling’s longstanding record for most Chelsea goals with two late strikes at Aston Villa, which turned deficit into victory. Those took the midfielder to 203 goals.
‘Lamps is Lamps,’ Jose Mourinho once said. ‘When he plays well, he is the best in the game. When he plays bad, he is the second or third best.’
‘It’s a bit surreal, to actually sit at the top in terms of goals,’ Lampard said on that day in the Midlands. ‘I can’t quite get my head around it.’
At the end of that 2012/13 season, the Blues became only the fourth club to win every available UEFA competition with a triumph in the final of the Europa League. It was that man Ivanovic whose injury-time header settled the final with Benfica and provided the high point of Benitez’s time at the club.
Jose at Chelsea #2
The following month, Mourinho returned in stunning fashion with the target top-flight honours once more after a period of Premier League underachievement.
We went very close in the title race, beating nearest challengers Man City and Liverpool home and away, but an occasional struggle to score goals eventually cost us top spot. In the Champions League, Atletico Madrid ended our challenge at the semi-final stage, but not before Demba Ba’s late winner against PSG in the quarters evoked memories of some of our greatest European nights.
In a busy close season we bid farewell to Lampard, who finished on 211 Chelsea goals. Drogba, another mainstay of our greatest teams, who had left after his magical Munich exploits, re-signed ahead of the 2014/15 season to add nous to a new-look Blues side containing the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa.
Mourinho’s men romped to the title, inspired by the magic of Eden Hazard, now Chelsea’s biggest star having joined in 2012, the creativity of Fabregas, the goalscoring of Diego Costa and a rock-solid backline with Terry still at its heart. He was ably assisted by Ivanovic and two new club stalwarts, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta.
Brazilians Oscar and Willian also made major contributions in attack while Nemanja Matic, another to return after a previous spell at Stamford Bridge, added formidable steel in midfield. Chelsea led the table from the very first game, a win at Burnley, and never relinquished top spot. There was plenty of scintillating football on display, especially before Christmas, and when attacking fluency proved harder to muster in the run-in, the Blues found a way to win narrow games.
Hazard in particular was a regular difference-maker, and his majesty were rewarded with a clean sweep of personal awards to accompany the collective triumphs. They included the League Cup, won against rivals Tottenham at Wembley with goals from Terry and that season’s top scorer Diego Costa. That game would also prove Cech’s last major contribution before he left following 11 years of sterling service and the Chelsea record for most clean sheets in safe hands.
‘He can turn something into a goal where nobody else would have seen a goal,’ said fellow mercurial genius Gianfranco Zola of Hazard’s spontaneous magic.
The defence of our title started badly and never improved, signalling the end for Mourinho in December 2015. Hazard fell way below the high standards he had set, and he was not the only one to suffer a dramatic loss of form.
Hiddink for the second time got the call to steady the ship with the Blues not far off the relegation zone. A long unbeaten run, despite many more draws than wins, edged us to mid-table. Still, the 10th-place finish was our lowest since 1995/96, and our interest in the cups ended without much of a fight.
The task of getting the Blues firing again was given to Antonio Conte, who had enjoyed plenty of recent success with Juventus and the Italy national team.
Premier League title no.5
A promising start under Conte was abruptly ended by consecutive defeats to first Liverpool and then, more emphatically, Arsenal. Late in that game at the Emirates, Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation he had worked on in pre-season and Europe-free midweeks. It proved a masterstroke.
‘We had a lot of big problems to solve and finding the right solution quickly was not easy,’ Conte said of the decisive tactical adjustment. ‘It was very difficult then to think about arriving at the end of the season celebrating the title.’
A 2-0 success at Hull a week later was the first of 13 consecutive Premier League victories, a club record. The winning streak propelled us to the top of the table and eventually our fifth Premier League title. It was arguably our least expected.
The line-up did not change much. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso offered defensive discipline and a consistent attacking threat from wing-back. David Luiz found himself right at home in the heart of a back three, with the dependable Azpilicueta and Cahill either side of him and Courtois solid in goal.
New signing N’Golo Kante, captured from surprise Premier League winners Leicester City, combined effectively with Matic in midfield, and further forward Hazard and Diego Costa were back to their best. Either Willian or Pedro offered extra attacking zest on the right flank.
Opposition teams knew what was coming but were powerless to stop it. A Bonfire Night battering of Everton was possibly the highlight, although a 3-1 comeback win at Manchester City ran it close, as did a 4-0 thrashing of Man United, now managed by Mourinho, on home soil.
In total, the Blues racked up a record 30 league wins and clinched the title with two games to spare courtesy of Michy Batshuayi’s late winner at West Brom. Kante and Hazard collected most of the individual awards between them, but this had very much been a collective effort.
Alas, we could not make it Double as 10-man Chelsea put in a surprisingly subpar showing against Arsenal in the FA Cup final. Terry, an unused sub at Wembley, bid an emotional farewell after a long and hugely successful Chelsea career.
‘You’ve given me everything from the age of 14 when I first signed at this football club,’ the departing skipper told an adoring Stamford Bridge after his final appearance for the Blues. ‘You’ve picked me up when I was down, you’ve sung my name when I’ve had bad games and disappointed you as well. Thank you will never, ever be enough but I’ll be supporting this team for years to come.’
For much of the next season, Conte moved to a 3-5-2 shape. Hazard was regularly deployed off new signing Alvaro Morata - brought in to replace the departed Diego Costa – or even sometimes as a false striker. This more pragmatic approach could not prevent a poor defence of our league title. There were some highlights in the season, notably late winners at Tottenham and Atletico Madrid early on, but a lifeless loss at Man City and the end of our long unbeaten home run against Tottenham, spanning 28 years, contributed to a fifth-place league finish.
We did have the consolation of a first FA Cup triumph in six years courtesy of the mercurial Hazard, who netted a penalty he had won against Man United. It was Conte’s final game in charge.
His replacement was another Italian, Maurizio Sarri. Utilising a rigid 4-3-3 with fellow Napoli arrival Jorginho instrumental in a deep-lying midfield role, the Blues briefly threatened a title challenge before falling away in the new year. Heavy defeats at Bournemouth and Man City threatened to derail the season, but Chelsea recovered, going toe-to-toe with the latter in the League Cup final at Wembley - eventually succumbing via a penalty shoot-out - and then beating top-four rivals Tottenham at the Bridge.
Our finish to the league season proved the most stable of the teams around us, with Hazard hitting top form at just the right time. We pipped Spurs to third but still fell way short of Man City and Liverpool.
More excitement could be found in the Europa League campaign. After beating Sparta Prague 5-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals we met a dangerous Eintracht Frankfurt side in the last four, with both legs of an enjoyable tie finishing 1-1. Hazard stroked home the winning penalty in the shoot-out, and then saved his best for last.
The all-London final against Arsenal was held some 3000 miles away, in Azerbaijan, and was won in convincing style. Hazard was imperious, netting a brace, while former Gunner Olivier Giroud, so prolific throughout our Europa League adventure, broke the deadlock with a fine header. Pedro also scored, adding a new winner’s medal to his jam-packed career collection in the process. It finished 4-1. Chelsea had emphatically painted Baku blue.
Hazard collected a fourth Chelsea Player of the Year award, a club record, before joining Real Madrid, while a man with three of those awards, Lampard, returned home to replace Sarri, whose stay had been short and sweet.
Lampard had a year’s management at Derby County under his belt when he arrived in July 2019, and the new boss turned to graduates from the Chelsea Academy to add freshness to the group, partly necessitated by a FIFA-imposed transfer ban.
The likes of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Reece James were successfully integrated and they, alongside some older heads, worked together to achieve a top-four finish and reach the FA Cup final. It was no mean feat, not least because the season was paused and then elongated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The final quarter of the campaign was concluded in double-quick time in empty stadiums, and Chelsea negotiated the packed schedule well to book a Champions League berth.
One of the star performers in Project Restart, Christian Pulisic, put us ahead at Wembley, but Arsenal recovered to repeat their 2017 FA Cup victory over us.
A significant summer of investment during an otherwise quiet window because of the pandemic signalled Chelsea’s intent to get back challenging England’s best after three seasons well shy of the top of the table.
With Chelsea still trailing the teams at the summit, Lampard was replaced in January 2021 by former PSG manager Thomas Tuchel from Germany and form improved, with strong defending the basis. Edouard Mendy, a goalkeeper signed near the start of the season, racked up numerous clean sheets and two finals were reached and a top-four finish was secured.
Although the 2021 FA Cup final was lost to an outstanding Leicester City goal at Wembley, two weeks later there was a glorious conclusion to the campaign. Having beaten Atletico Madrid, Porto and Real Madrid in the knockout stages, Chelsea were deserved winners over freshly crowned Premier League champions Manchester City in Porto to lift the Champions League trophy for the second time in our history. One of the big summer signings, young German attacker Kai Havertz scored the goal.
The Chelsea drama continued, and the ambition to be the best and entertain our widespread fanbase that had run through Roman Abramovich’s ownership was still strong. Our founders from 1905 would recognise their club today.