Reliving the dream: Skonto Riga (h)

This season marks 20 years since Chelsea first competed in the Champions League, and we will be celebrating the anniversary on this website with a regular feature that looks back on that historic European campaign, when Blues fans lived the dream…

Chelsea v Skonto Riga, Champions League third qualifying round first leg, Wednesday 11 August 1999

Gianluca Vialli’s side had mounted a serious title challenge in 1998/99, eventually finishing up just four points behind champions Manchester United. A first league championship in over 40 years might have eluded us, but our third-place finish did guarantee Chelsea a maiden shot at elite European football.

It arrived 44 years later than it should have. We were all set to take part in the inaugural European Cup in 1955 as English champions, having taken a big part in the competition’s preparations and been drawn to play Djurgaarden of Sweden in the first round. But, under pressure from the Football League, we declined our invitation.

Chelsea chairman Joe Mears’ position within the FA bureaucracy and on the Football League Management Committee put him in a difficult position. History books tell us the Football League preferred its clubs to remain aloof because it feared fixture congestion would play havoc with its own timetable.

Frustratingly, the first winners Real Madrid played just seven games, and in each of the following two seasons Man United reached the semi-finals - just as Hibs had done as Britain’s sole representative in 1955/56 - while remaining competitive domestically.

Fast forward four decades and the competition had expanded to allow more than one team from major European countries the chance to compete. In 1999 England had three spots: the top two, in this case Man United and Arsenal, entered at the group stage, with Chelsea required to win a two-legged third qualifying round fixture to advance.

The draw pitted us against Skonto Riga, the Latvian champions who had won their domestic title seven years in a row following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. They had European pedigree, only narrowly losing twice to Barcelona in the 97/98 Champions League, including the fixture in the Nou Camp when they had led 2-0 at half-time.

In the summer of ’99, Skonto dramatically overcome Romanian title winners Rapid Bucharest 5-4 on aggregate in the second qualifying round, scoring twice in the final 13 minutes of the second leg at home to progress, following a 3-3 thriller in Bucharest. At the time of the first leg at Stamford Bridge they were already 14 games into their domestic season and yet again led the way.

Chelsea were also top of the table but after a solitary match, the spectacular 4-0 dismantling of Sunderland at Stamford Bridge, best remembered for Gus Poyet’s extraordinary scissor-kick goal from Gianfranco Zola’s scooped pass.

Vialli’s programme notes epitomised the pre-match sentiment: complacency must not set in.

‘Tonight is a great occasion to come to Stamford Bridge and celebrate, to be happy and enthusiastic,’ the player-manager wrote.

‘For the first time in the history of this club we are playing in the Champions League. It is only a qualifying match, so we have to finish the job we started last season, going through and earning the right to play in the real Champions League next month. That would be fantastic, wouldn’t it!

‘Skonto Riga is a team that has got experience in European competitions. They’ve played in the past teams the like of Barcelona, Inter Milan, Spartak Moscow and Aberdeen.

‘In the previous qualifying round they beat Rapid Bucharest which is the best Romanian team. Doesn’t that tell you anything? Everybody say that Chelsea on paper is stronger than them. I don’t feel like denying that. But we’ve got to play at our best to go through, respecting Skonto Riga, thinking it’s going to be a tough, tight match, and forgetting the four goals we scored against Sunderland.’

Dennis Wise, in his captain’s notes, echoed Vialli's analysis. 

‘Tonight is one of the most important games in my life. Tonight, together with the second leg in a fortnight, can give us the right to play in the same League as Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Lazio, Marseille, and even Man United and Arsenal later on.

‘It’s a fabulous chance for us. We deserve it after last season, but we have to take it. Skonto Riga aren’t going to hand it to us.'

photo of Dennis Wise Dennis Wise

‘I love Europe. If I had to pick my most satisfying Chelsea achievement it would be winning the Cup Winners’ Cup. We showed we could live with some of the best in Europe then. What we have the chance to do now is take on the very best in Europe. But we have to beat Skonto first.

‘We’re okay. But we’ve got to win stay okay. And tonight, those of you are here have got to make Skonto Riga wish that they weren’t.’

It wasn’t a sell-out at Stamford Bridge, just over 22,000 supporters in place for the 8.05pm kick-off. ITV’s live broadcast perhaps affected that attendance.

And having waited 44 years for the big moment, Blues fans had to endure another 75 minutes of frustration against dogged opponents who coped with having Andrejs Tereskinas sent off after just half-an-hour. The left-back stupidly kicked Frank Leboeuf before a corner was taken.

Poyet and Wise were among those denied by Skonto’s outstanding keeper Aleksandrs Kolinko. He and team-mate Andrejs Rubins would shortly join Crystal Palace, with defender Igors Stepanovs (an unused sub) bound for Arsenal. This team would form the core of the Latvia squad that surprisingly qualified for Euro 2004, where they drew with Germany.

Back to the Bridge and Skonto were content to sit behind the ball and soak up pressure, frustrating their more technically proficient opponents, just as they had done against Rapid in the previous round.

Thankfully, the extra man did eventually tell, and in the space of eight minutes the tie was all but over.

Two of Vialli’s subsitutes combined for the opener with 76 played. Wise’s cross found Tore Andre Flo who chested the ball into the path of Celestine Babayaro, like the Norwegian not long off the bench. His controlled finish whizzed past Kolinko, and was all the more impressive coming as it did from his weaker right foot. Baba had overcome off-field issues during that pre-season and celebrated joyously with a trademark backflip. In a statistical quirk, Chelsea’s first-ever goalscorer in the Champions League remains the youngest player to have appeared in the competition, having featured for Anderlecht at the age of just 16 years and 87 days.

A minute later it was 2-0, Poyet neatly curling home from the edge of the box, and the scoring was completed by Chris Sutton, netting the first of his three Chelsea goals by turning and shooting past Kolinko from close range. Our then record signing’s relief was evident – he had missed two great chances on his debut against Sunderland four days earlier.

The Blues had been made to work hard for it, but the 3-0 scoreline reflected our dominance and, as the Independent’s report put it, ‘ensured that the London side should go through to the land of milk and honey that is the Champions League, unless Riga mortis sets in in two weeks' time’. Our unbeaten home run in Europe meanwhile stretched to 28 games.

Let’s make history, guys’. That was Vialli’s closing message in his Skonto Riga column. He would get his wish, even if the experienced Italian could surely not have foreseen quite how spectacular Chelsea’s first Champions League adventure would be.

Chelsea team v Skonto Riga (4-4-2)
: De Goey; Ferrer, Desailly, Leboeuf, Le Saux; Petrescu (Goldbaek 79), Deschamps (Babayaro 69), Wise, Poyet; Sutton, Zola (Flo 69).
Unused subs Hogh, Nicholls, Forssell, Hitchcock (gk).
Scorers Babayaro 76, Poyet 78, Sutton 84

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