Tomorrow is the 23rd anniversary of one of the most thrilling turnarounds in Chelsea’s history, against Liverpool in round four of the 1996/97 FA Cup...
In retrospect it also marked a sea-change in the Blues’ history.
The setting was a 4pm Sunday kick-off at Stamford Bridge, and the BBC Match of the Day Live cameras were present for a match billed (correctly, as it panned out): ‘The Road to Wembley’.
‘In the acres of football that now cover the television landscape,’ enthused the Independent’s Glenn Moore, ‘there occasionally comes a match which justifies all the pre-kick-off hype. This was one of those matches.’
Newspapers had been bemoaning the Mersey club’s inconsistency while at the same time flagging up the danger presented by Chelsea’s recent star signing, Gianfranco Zola.
The Merseysiders’ coach Roy Evans had a cunning plan, though: to deploy veteran former winger John Barnes as a central midfield schemer. When the visitors headed down the tunnel at half-time with a 2-0 lead – which would have been three but for Steve McManaman missing a one-on-one – the scribes were no doubt planning to hail Evans as a genius.
Instead, the final analysis focused on Chelsea boss Ruud Gullit’s perceptive changes, which initiated a stunning second-half turnaround. The Dutchman’s primary concern was to end Barnes’ playmaking, so he redeployed Robbie Di Matteo as a man-marker. So successful was the Italian that the overwhelmed Barnes never played in that position again.
At the same time, Gullit took off Scott Minto and called upon the FA Cup warhorse, Mark Hughes. The striker was to lead by example, charging into challenges and leaving Liverpool shell-shocked.
The Welshman’s impact was immediate. He chiselled out the first Blues goal on the turn after five minutes, and had a hand in the next, stamping a lay-off for Zola to complete. And when Dan Petrescu picked out Gianluca Vialli’s run, Chelsea had turned 0-2 into 3-2 in just a quarter of an hour.
With 15 minutes to go, the seal was put on an extraordinary comeback when Vialli headed past David James from Zola’s set-piece, completing the 4-2 scoreline. At that, the ecstatic crowd reached decibels rarely heard at the Bridge, with the stands a spaghetti of raised fists and flailing arms. The BBC camera captured Reds defender Mark Wright looking like a man who had not only forgotten where he parked his car, but how to drive it.
Liverpool, the statisticians said, had not lost from a two-goal lead since the Beatles topped the charts with ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ in 1964. It was Chelsea, though, who had the ticket to ride… all the way to the final.
To watch highlights of more epic past Chelsea games, head to Retro Blues on the Fifth Stand App.