Today marks 20 years since Chelsea first competed in the Champions League group stage. And what an introduction it was too with the mighty Milan our opponents at home. With the help of Marcel Desailly and Tore Andre Flo, we look back on one of THE great nights at Stamford Bridge…
Chelsea v AC Milan, Champions League group stage one, matchday one, Wednesday 15 September 1999
It really felt that it had all been building up to this game. The steady rise in league position during the latter part of the 1990s which had culminated in beating traditional rivals Leeds to third place – the reward a chance to compete in the Champions League the following season. The becoming accustomed to challenging on the European stage with a recent UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup triumph plus two semi-final appearances in that competition, and a UEFA Super Cup victory over Real Madrid as well. The comfortable overcoming of Latvian side Skonto Riga in our Champions League qualifier to win us a place in the group-stage draw for the first time in our history.
Read: Reliving the Dream – Skonto Riga at home
Read: Reliving the Dream – Skonto Riga away
Those had all been leading up to our first Matchday One in Europe’s most fabled and most prestigious club competition. And what a thrill it was when the draw grouped us with the mighty AC Milan, plus Hertha Berlin and Galatasaray, with the Italians first up.
Three times winners and twice Champions League runners-up in the 11 preceding seasons, no club at that time had a bigger reputation. They were also a team our manager in 1999/00 knew very well.
‘Here we are, guys. We’ve made it and now we’ve got to enjoy it as much as we can,’ wrote Gianluca Vialli in his programme notes for the Milan game.
‘Everybody knows about AC Milan. I don’t have to say anything more than what their history says.
‘I don’t think I’ll need to talk too much to our players before the game. I won’t need to underline the importance of the Champions League for our confidence and our future.’
Juventus legend Vialli was not the only person in the Chelsea squad with plenty of Serie A know-how. In our ranks was Marcel Desailly – a Rossoneri great having won the Champions League with the Italian side in one of the all-time great team displays versus Barcelona. He had also lifted the trophy with Marseille. Having joined Chelsea from Milan a year earlier, he knew as much as anyone about what was in store when we hosted our first Champions League game.
‘You could feel the vibe of that match,’ Desailly told the official Chelsea website this week when we took him down memory lane.
‘It was the first proper match for Chelsea in this competition but for me also, the game was something special.
‘It was a top match and beforehand it was let’s show that Chelsea is coming now by beating one of the best European teams and we were confident of our possibility. This is what I remember.’
Tore Andre Flo, who led the attack alongside Gianfranco Zola that night, has similar recollections of what, in contrast to Desailly, was the first proper Champions League game of his career.
‘The fact we were now going to play in the Champions League against a very good Milan team, it was obviously a very big game for us,’ he says.
‘We believed we could do really well in this competition. When we played at our best we knew that we could beat almost anyone. It was a tough game. It was a lovely feeling playing in such a game.’
With Milan defending with three at the back, Flo often found himself up against the iconic Paolo Maldini and ended up swapping shirts with him. Desailly was in direct contest with Oliver Bierhoff and Andriy Shevchencko, the latter in his first Milan season following a record-breaking transfer.
‘It helped we had players from Serie A like Didier Deschamps and Gianfranco Zola,’ notes Desailly. What Chelsea also had that season was a very good defence with Desailly paired with international colleague Frank Leboeuf, and Albert Ferrer and Celestine Babayaro as full-backs.
We conceded just four goals in our first 13 matches that season. The team was well-organised throughout and the big match against Milan was our seventh clean sheet in eight games.
Our first-ever Champions League group stage game ended 0-0. But it was a good 0-0. It was a 0-0 of high-quality football from both sides with support from the stands to match. We were ahead in the corner count by seven to two and had the better chances to score. In the second half Zola played a one-two with Dan Petrescu and hit the inside of the post. Leonardo struck the top of the Chelsea crossbar late on.
‘This is a good result for us as we expected a difficult game,’ said Vialli afterwards. ‘I am proud of my players as we have shown that we can play Milan, compete and even dominate a club of such greatness. I told Zola before the game that he could do anything tonight. He worked well, both with and without the ball.’
‘Chelsea did more to win the game than we did,’ admitted the Rossoneri’s coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
‘The way Zola played meant that there were always chances. Chelsea were clever with the ball with Desailly, Deschamps and Zola employing the Italian style of play.’
Desailly, in the aftermath of the match had this to say: ‘Psychologically it was really important for us to start well in the Champions League because many people have seen that game and they now have a consideration for Chelsea.’
‘They were good days,’ he says now as he looks back from the perspective of two decades further on.
‘Happy Champions League anniversary Chelsea! It was one of those games you were looking forward to playing. Top players, a top crowd and a top competition. With me knowing the value of the Champions League, my motivation was doubled. I had been in three finals so all the time I cherish the Champions League.’
An equally famous Champions League meeting with Milan in the San Siro was soon to follow.