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Cesar Azpilicueta and Willian set to join illustrious group

Tonight’s game against Valencia could see Cesar Azpilicueta and Willian make their 50th European appearance for the Blues, which would see them join this impressive list of overseas players to reach the milestone for Chelsea.

Since winning the FA Cup in 1997, we have been virtual ever-presents in UEFA’s various club competitions, with the 2016/17 campaign the only time we haven’t appeared in either the Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League or Cup Winners’ Cup.

In that time we have racked up plenty of matches on our way to winning four major European honours – and you can make that five if you include the Super Cup – and there have been six players prior to the skipper and Willian, should they feature this evening, to rack up more than a half century of appearances for the Blues on the continent.

Leading the way is Petr Cech, who joined the club in the summer of 2003 from Rennes and went on to establish himself as one of the finest goalkeepers on the planet. In total he appeared in 105 UEFA matches during his 12 years in west London – and there is little doubt which of those appearances Blues fans enjoyed the most.

We went into the 2012 Champions League finals as underdogs against a strong Bayern Munich side on their own patch, but that wasn’t accounting for the brilliance of the Czech shot-stopper between the posts. His performance was nothing short of outstanding as he repelled wave after wave of Bayern attacks, most notably keeping out a penalty from his former team-mate Arjen Robben in extra time.

Then, in the resulting shoot-out, another man on this list may well have taken the headlines for converting the winning penalty, but it took two spectacular saves from Cech to deny Ivica Olic and Bastian Schweinsteiger to put us in a position to win it.

A year later Cech was once again a key protagonist as we added the Europa League trophy to our collection, and no write-up on his European history would be complete without mentioning he kept out Lionel Messi every time he come up against him during our epic tussles with Barcelona.

Next on the list is Didier Drogba, who played 74 times for the Blues in Europe and was always the man for the big occasion. His goals during the 2011/12 Champions League campaign helped take us past Valencia, Napoli, Barcelona and then, most famously, Bayern. As well as heading our late equaliser in normal time when it looked like the trophy was slipping away from us, he stepped up to convert the decisive penalty in the shoot-out to confirm Chelsea as European champions for the first time.

To focus solely on his heroics that year would be doing a disservice to the former Marseille man, who marked his European debut for the club with a stunning brace at PSG amidst a hostile environment. There was a remarkable strike against Barcelona in 2006, our only hat-trick in the Champions League against Levski Sofia, the goals which helped us beat Liverpool two years later to reach the final for the first time, and so many more. Is it any wonder he is up there in the conversation about our greatest-ever player?

Eight appearances behind Drogba on 66 is Branislav Ivanovic, a man whose primary role was to help keep the ball out of the back of the net at the other end, but with a happy knack of popping up with crucial goals of his own when it really counted.

The Serbian right-back became a cult hero when he scored twice in a famous win at Anfield in the 2008/09 Champions League quarter-finals, earning him the moniker ‘two-goal’ for years to come, and it was his strike in extra time of our thrilling comeback against Napoli that elevated him to legend status, although he missed our triumphant night in Munich through suspension.

Still, he went some way to making up for that disappointment the following year when he netted our last-gasp winner against Benfica to secure the Europa League. The sight of Ivanovic atop the crossbar during the post-match celebrations will live long in the memory.

Goals weren’t the forte of John Mikel Obi, a steady defensive midfielder who kept it simple in front of the back four to allow the flair players license to strut their stuff in the attacking third. Of his 65 continental appearances for the Blues, his best undoubtedly came in Munich on that famous night, as he produced a mature display which was understated yet crucial to our Champions League triumph.

He also had his moment in the spotlight when he scored a vital goal at Paris Saint-Germain in the 2015/16, which saw us meet the French side for a third season on the spin, although it ultimately came in a losing cause.

The final two players on the list are both tied on 55, but they can lay claim to providing us with two of our greatest moments on the European stage.

For the recently departed Eden Hazard, that came in his final appearance for the club in the Europa League final against Arsenal. The Gunners had regularly been on the receiving end of wonder goals by the Belgian schemer and he came to the fore in Baku with two goals in our stunning second-half display to blow the Gunners away. It was the perfect way to sign-off as a Blue, as we recorded a 4-1 victory to take the trophy for the second time in six years.

Ramires, meanwhile, netted one of the most audacious goals in Champions League history, with a stunning chip against Barcelona which ultimately proved to be the decisive effort in our semi-final triumph at the Nou Camp in 2012.

Trailing 2-1 on aggregate and down to 10 men, it looked like we were heading for another heart-breaking exit in the last four when Rammy strode forward purposefully to get on the end of a Frank Lampard pass and casually dink the ball over the onrushing Victor Valdes. That he had not long received a yellow card which would keep him out of the final told you everything you need to know about a player who always put the team’s best interests above his own.

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