It was 20 years ago yesterday that Chelsea guaranteed a place in the Champions League group stages for the first time in our history. With the help of Carlo Cudicini, who made his Blues debut against Skonto Riga, we look back on a trip to Latvia that was in stark contrast to what was to come...
Skonto Riga v Chelsea, Champions League third qualifying round second leg, Wednesday 25 August 1999
Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea team and the thousands of loyal Blues who followed them over land and sea would experience some of the great football cathedrals on their travels in 1999/00: San Siro, Camp Nou, the Olympic Stadiums in Berlin and Rome, Stade Veledrome, Galatasaray’s infamously hostile Ali Sami Yen.
But they were all, metaphorically speaking at least, a million miles away from the venue for our first European away match that season, the one-sided, 6000-capacity Daugava Stadium in eastern Riga (pictured top).
It was home to Skonto Riga, the Latvian champions and Chelsea’s opponents in the Champions League third qualifying round. Our 3-0 victory in the first leg at Stamford Bridge set us up perfectly to reach the group stage, and a fortnight later Vialli’s men completed the job with a disciplined performance in the Baltics.
Chelsea’s northern European strike partnership of Tore Andre Flo and Mikael Forssell both went close to breaking the deadlock, while we limited our hosts to very few opportunities in front of a crowd of just over 5000 people. It finished goalless, so job done.
Not only did the game guarantee Chelsea’s place in the big time; it also launched the career of a Blues legend. There were a little over 10 minutes remaining in Riga when Vialli decided to replace his first-choice goalkeeper, Ed de Goey, with a new arrival from his native Italy. His name? Carlo Cudicini.
‘Twenty years! It’s a long time!’ laughs Carlo as we catch up with him at Cobham, where he is now a loan player technical coach.
‘I remember I had basically just joined the club. It was a very important fixture for us because we wanted to make the group stage. Those qualifying rounds are normally tricky, but we had quite a convincing victory at home.
‘Kindly enough Luca decided to give me my debut. It was good for me, I had just joined the club, and had the chance to have my first official game for Chelsea. Even if it was only for 10 minutes, it was an important start to my career at Chelsea.
‘I didn’t know I would be coming on, but I was pleased with the fact Luca had it in his mind,’ adds Cudicini.
‘It was an important gesture from him to give me a taste of wearing the blue shirt after I had just arrived at the club.’
The Blues had signed the then-25-year-old from Castel di Sangro, a little-known team in Italy’s lower divisions. Earlier in his career Cudicini had played twice for AC Milan (the club his father had made such an impact at in the 1960s), and ironically both of those appearances had been in the Champions League, so this was not Cudicini’s first taste of elite European football.
He remembers a very small ground and an earlier kick-off, as well as a country that was not long independent from the Soviet Union. ‘All in all it was an experience!’ sums up Carlo.
De Goey would play the remainder of our Champions League games that season, but Cudicini was ever-present on the bench, witnessing first hand some of the most memorable matches and moments in our history.
‘It was a great run and an excellent first experience of the Champions League for Chelsea.
‘Everyone really enjoyed the possibility to perform against, and challenge, big clubs. Let’s not forget that team had won the Cup Winners’ Cup the year before, was going to win the FA Cup, so it was on a good run of results.
‘It was an important year and an important competition to understand that yes, we belonged here.’
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey (Cudicini 79); Petrescu, Hogh, Desailly (c), Babayaro; Poyet (Nicholls 64), Wise, Morris, Goldbaek (Harley 83); Flo, Forssell.
Unused subs Leboeuf, Sutton, Zola, Clement.