We look at past years when the Blues have matched this season’s rapid qualification, and it hasn't happened often!
On Tuesday night in France, Frank Lampard’s Chelsea team qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League on matchday four. In other words, we made it through with two group games to spare.
Make no mistake, this does not happen often. In the club’s 16 previous Champions League campaigns, on only three occasions was the primary target of making it out of the group stage achieved so early.
The Blues’ debut in the Champions League was in 1999/00 and it was a unique season for us in that we were asked to negotiate two group stages before we played a knockout tie (an initial qualifying round excepted).
Although there was delight with how well Gianluca Vialli’s side performed the first time on the big European stage, it needed until the sixth and final game of the first group stage to progress, and then the fifth game of the second group stage.
There was then a gap of four seasons until we returned to the competition in 2003, when Roman Abramovich had just taken ownership of Chelsea and Claudio Ranieri was manager.
The first time
The third Chelsea season in the Champions League, 2004/05, benefitted from more top-quality new signings and Jose Mourinho had taken the reins. It is perhaps no surprise this is the first of the four-game qualifications.
Beginning with a Didier Drogba inspired 3-0 away win against PSG, a game in which John Terry also scored, both players, plus Alexey Smertin, were also on target when we hosted Mourinho’s previous club Porto at Stamford Bridge on matchday two.
Remarkably, our legendary centre-back and captain hit the net for the third Champions League game in a row when we hosted CSKA Moscow for the third game, with Eidur Gudjohnsen completing a 2-0 win.
So with three wins out of three, qualification was well within our grasp for the return game in Russia, and it was duly delivered on a chilly November night by Arjen Robben’s first goal for the club.
That season we bowed out at the semi-final stage and we continued to be regular visitors to the latter stages of the tournament, including to the final in 2008. However, with the group stage that season beginning with a home draw against Norwegian side Rosenborg towards the very end of the first Mourinho tenure, we needed five group games for qualification.
Two in a row
For the second occasion when Chelsea took just four games to qualify, we look to the end of that decade and our Double-winning side of 2009/10, who swept to the Champions League knockout rounds with wins at home to Porto, away in Cyprus at APOEL (both thanks to Nicolas Anelka goals), a thumping 4-0 victory at the Bridge against Atletico Madrid with current boss Frank Lampard among the goals, and then the final step on matchday four in Spain, when two Sergio Aguero goals for the home side were balanced up by two from Drogba.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side proved adept at the comfortable qualification, as they followed it up by doing the same the very next season, 2010/11, with a big win in Slovakia at Zilina, victories at home to Marseille and away to Spartak Moscow, all topped off by a 4-1 when we hosted the Russian side. Branislav Ivanovic scored twice that night.
And that was it for the four-game group-stage qualifications until this week. In the time in between we won the Champions League in 2011/12, but famously it needed a big Drogba night against Valencia on matchday six to keep us in the competition, and the following year we did not even make it out of the group stage at all.
Happily, that was a one-off such slip by the Blues, and although we undoubtedly want to win Group E in 2020/21, Olivier Giroud’s late goal in Rennes means tension reduced for the two games to come, a rare but welcome luxury.