Tomorrow night’s meeting with Udinese will not be the first time the Blues’ pre-season campaign has concluded between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea.
Rewind 21 years and it was Claudio Ranieri taking his Chelsea team to northern Italy to put the finishing touches on his squad’s preparations ahead of the start of the 2001/02 Premiership season the following weekend.
As it always did under Ranieri’s management, Chelsea’s summer had started in his native Italy, too. Our former boss liked the isolation and altitude of Roccaporena, a tiny village in Umbria, to get his players up to speed with nothing to distract them. The training camp included a pair of low-key games against local teams.
There followed a quartet of domestic friendlies, perhaps most memorable for Frank Lampard’s first games and goals in blue, before Italy beckoned again.
The first of two games in three days was against Vicenza, famous Cup Winners’ Cup opponents three years prior. It finished 1-1, Jody Morris scoring our goal, and then attention turned to Udinese, with just 48 hours between the fixtures.
Le Zebrette, or The Little Zebras, had just finished 12th in Serie A, but in fact only escaped relegation by a solitary point. Luciano Spalletti’s contract was not renewed, and Udinese turned to the experienced Roy Hodgson to oversee an improvement in performance during what was, in retrospect, the league’s halcyon days.
Hodgson was the last of several fresh faces introduced to the home crowd at the Stadio Friuli, an open stadium with a running track that had hosted three games at Italia ’90. On the evening of Chelsea’s visit, a pleasant Saturday in August, around 13,000 supporters were present.
Kick-off was delayed a few minutes because of individual welcomes given to Udinese’s new signings and Hodgson. Chelsea’s starting XI came out to line up for the game and had to go back in.
When the action did get underway the hosts went ahead early, Ghana international Mohammed Gargo stroking the ball in from the edge of the box with nine minutes on the clock. New signing Emmanuel Petit immediately limped off to be replaced by Slavisa Jokanovic.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, leading Chelsea’s attack with Gianfranco Zola, saw a trademark bullet shot saved, before the contest turned fractious. Jesper Gronkjaer chopped down Mirko Pieri, who had to be stretchered off, and in retribution two Udinese players wiped out our Danish winger and were booked, all before half-time.
Five minutes after the restart an inch-perfect Zola cross was nodded in by Hasselbaink, whose next involvement of note was to be dismissed. He clashed with Udinese defender Andrea Sottil off the ball following a foul in which neither was involved. The referee didn’t hesitate in showing both players the red card. It ended 1-1.
‘It was a tired looking affair with a surprising nervousness about the game,’ declared Onside, Chelsea’s monthly newspaper. ‘Neither side wanted to lose, and the stupid sendings off made it a talking point.’ Highlights could be seen first in England on Chelsea TV, which broadcast for the very first time the following Monday.
At the end of that week, Chelsea’s Premiership campaign began with a 1-1 draw at home to Newcastle, Ranieri’s starting XI bearing two changes from the ill-tempered Udinese game. Chelsea would go on to finish sixth in the Premier League and reach the FA Cup final. Udinese, again, escaped relegation by a point. Hodgson’s time in charge lasted less than six months following a disagreement with owner Giampaolo Pozzo, leaving the club that December in ninth place and in the Coppa Italia quarter-finals.
Pozzo stills own Udinese, as he has done since 1986. Other lines can be drawn between that friendly in 2001 and tomorrow’s game, not least that Sottil, the man sent off alongside Hasselbaink, is now in charge of Udinese. Just like Hodgson, Sottil’s first game in charge on home soil is a friendly against Chelsea, although the Stadio Friuli has been seriously revamped since then, with the running track removed and the stands brought much closer to the action, filled tomorrow by supporters ready for the next instalment of Udinese versus Chelsea.