In the second part of our historical feature looking back at the 2004/05 season 15 years on, a tightly-contested opening-weekend win over title rivals is analysed...
‘The boys at the back were brilliant and Petr was there to take the crosses. Of course we could have played much better at times, but we showed real character and defended with our lives.'
As far as Premier League openers go, they don't come much tougher than Manchester United. Throw six Blues debutants into the mix and a manager experiencing the English top flight for the first time and you've got the recipe for a mouth-watering introduction to the new season – but not, according to one player, the right ingredients for a title-winning side.
United defender Mikael Silvestre, perhaps attempting to indulge in the type of mind games his manager was no stranger to over the years, was on the back page of just about every newspaper on the eve of the game with a message for the Blues: 'Even if you buy international players and top players, you need a certain spirit in the dressing room. You don't get that in one month.'
Over the course of the first 90 minutes of the new season, the Frenchman was about to be proved wrong – spectacularly so, in fact. Every blade of grass was covered; tackles were thundered into; each instruction from Jose Mourinho adhered to by the letter. The final whistle should have been met with exhaustion after the relentless effort from the players, but that spirit manifested itself in euphoric celebration.
In truth, the spirit of the players was needed to get the Blues over the line against an opponent which had known little aside from victory over the course of the previous decade. With Petr Cech, Paulo Ferreira, Alexey Smertin and Didier Drogba all handed their first starts – and Ricardo Carvalho and Mateja Kezman to come on – the brilliant pre-season campaign had brought about a certain level of cohesion, but still short of what was required to be the best. As any footballer will tell you, though, skill can only get you so far.
This was a victory built on desire, typified by Eidur Gudjohnsen's game-winning goal. The Icelandic striker was perhaps a surprise choice to start alongside Drogba, taking into account Kezman's pre-season form. As with so many of Mourinho's decisions, it paid dividends almost immediately.
Having shown more bravery than Quinton Fortune in the face of a bouncing ball, Geremi took advantage of the extra space to send a deep cross towards Drogba, whose downward header was perfectly into the path of Gudjohnsen. The former Bolton Wanderers man typically had a cool head in front of goal and this occasion was no different – although it perhaps ended a little more scrappily than he had intended. After lofting the ball over the hesitant Tim Howard, he held off the sliding challenge of make-shift centre-back Roy Keane to bundle the ball home and give the Blues an early lead (top and below).
It would prove to be the game's brightest moment by some distance; Chelsea were unable to display the same cutting edge in our attacking play, while the Red Devils could not find the killer pass. A huge factor in that, of course, was the brilliant defensive work from the Blues – starting with Big Pete and the back four, ably assisted by a midfield diamond anchored by Claude Makelele and featuring the scampering duo of Geremi and Smertin. The latter, in particular, was a revelation to those who hadn't seen his tireless displays on loan at Portsmouth the previous season as he acclimatised to English football.
Despite dominating possession, United simply could not find a way past the relentless Blues and the referee's final whistle signalled a winning start to Premier League life for Chelsea's new manager.
'When Silvestre said we haven't got the time to create a big team spirit he was wrong,' said Mourinho after the game.
'We were a team mentally today – and we had to win this match because of the three points we get against our direct opponent. And I think we deserved them because of the team spirit.
'Manchester United and Arsenal have great teams and have worked with their managers for a long time. We've been together for three weeks but we have this spirit and organisation and we play with maximum effort and quality at certain moments.'
The matchwinner, too, was keen to highlight the hard work of his team-mates over his own individual achievement, adding: 'They put us under some real pressure but we dealt with it. We showed real character and defended with our lives.'
And that, Mikael Silvestre, is what you call team spirit.
- By Richard Godden - Chelsea matchday programme editor
You can watch a full recap of the 2004/05 season in Premier League Years on the 5th Stand app.