Tiemoue Bakayoko made his Champions League debut in Eastern Europe, more than three years ago now. As the Blues prepare to face opposition from the far corner of the continent, the official Chelsea website sat down with the Frenchman to hear about his European experience to date…
It was for his performances for Monaco in last season’s Champions League that Tiemoue Bakayoko first caught the attention of many football observers, particularly beyond the borders of his native France. The team from the principality on the Mediterranean coastline had to get through two qualifying rounds just to make the group stages, but from there they lit up the competition with a young and vibrant side. Bakayoko was integral to that, and at the campaign's end he was named in the 18-man UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season.
The seeds of that Monaco team were sown a couple of years before, and that was when Bakayoko, not long after his 20th birthday, was first blooded in the Champions League by manager Leonardo Jardim. His maiden outing was as a late substitute in a goalless draw away to Zenit St Petersburg, as Monaco fought to make it out of the group stages.
‘It was a special sensation to play in the Champions League for the first time,’ recalls Bakayoko. ‘It’s full of big players. It’s the top club competition in Europe and in the world.
‘I remember it was very cold in Russia! But to listen to the Champions League anthem at the start and then to come on for my debut was very important for me. It was a dream come true. I have good memories of it.
‘The game was quicker. You really have to be more aggressive, more concentrated because it is all about the small details. I tried to do that. I started the last two matches in the group that we won to finish top of the group and qualify, and we ended up getting to the quarter-finals. It was a good thing.’
They progressed past Arsenal on away goals in the last 16 before Juventus edged them out by a single goal. The same teams would meet two years later, but this time at the semi-final stage, with Monaco having got the better of Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund, both fancied teams. Bakayoko had headed the winner against the English side.
‘We had a good group of players,’ Bakayoko responds when we ask what the key to their success was.
‘We spent the whole season fighting for each other, working a lot in training, and doing what the coach asked of us. After that there was a lot of talent in the group. You can see that when you look at the players who left.
‘We knew what we were capable of. We were not scared of any team. Our run was not easy, we played some great clubs and we were able to beat them. It was an amazing achievement.
‘We could have handled the return game against Juventus in the semi-finals better, but in the end it was a good season for us in the Champions League because people were not expecting it. A few years before the club was in Ligue 2.
‘Now the aim with Chelsea is to win this competition,’ adds the 23-year-old. ‘If you don’t win it, it’s a failure. I hope with this match against Qarabag we can qualify and continue on the right path.’
The Azeri side evoke happy memories for Bakayoko, for it was during the reverse fixture in September that he opened his account for the Blues, on his fourth appearance since signing in the summer.
‘I felt a lot of emotion. I was very proud to score my first goal and in front of our fans as well. It brought me great pleasure.
‘At Rennes and Monaco I struggled to score my first goal, so to score for Chelsea after just a few weeks gave me confidence. There is a group here that gives me confidence as well.
‘I was very happy to score and I hope I can continue like this, starting today.’