Category Archives: Chelsea

Fernando Torres – The Nou Camp Matador.

torres

There are many reasons why certain goals are memorable. They can come in big matches, be part of an ongoing rivalry between the goalscorer and the team he nets against. Perhaps it’s the type of goal where the player runs the length of the pitch before rounding then goalkeeper and scoring, something especially difficult in an away game against a massive club in one of the biggest tournaments. Or, perhaps it’s the sort of goal that rewards a team for outstanding fortitude against the odds, when all seemed lost. Some goals have a few of these elements, but very few have them all, and this is the tale of one that does just that; a goal that Gary Neville described as “Un-bel-eive-able!”

On 24 April 2012, Chelsea turned up at the Camp Nou to defend the slenderest of leads, thanks to a backs-to-the-wall effort at Stamford Bridge where, in a game overwhelmingly dominated by the visitors, Didier Drogba had managed to snaffle a precious goal on one the home team’s rare visits to the opposition penalty area. Now they had it all to do keep their Champions League aspirations alive in a game where Barcelona were sure to be looking to secure the goals their domination should have earned a couple of weeks previously in west London.

Things didn’t start well for the visitors. A dozen minutes in, Gary Cahill tweaked a hamstring and had to be replaced. It would get worse. Despite holding out until ten minutes before the break, a rare goal by Sergio Busquets brought the aggregate scores level. Two minutes later, a malevolent rush of blood to the head saw John Terry dismissed after a senseless knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez. It didn’t end there. Just two minutes ahead of the break, Andrés Iniesta netted the second for Barcelona to put them ahead, and leaving Chelsea “…a mountain to climb,” in the words of Martin Tyler. The game looked well and truly up for Roberto di Matteo’s team.

A goal by Ramires in injury time at the end of the half seemed scant consolation. Yes, it put Chelsea ahead on away goals, but surely wouldn’t be enough. The second period would inevitably bring a Blaugrana onslaught and down to ten men, with both first-choice centre-backs off the field it looked like it would need something extraordinary if Chelsea were to survive; something quite “unbelievable” in fact.

Sitting on the Chelsea bench as the white line held firm against the home team’s swarming attacks was Fernando Torres. Born in Fuenlabrada in the Madrid Metropolitan Area, El Niño had log been a hate figure for the Cules in the Camp Nou. As well as hailing from the heart of Castilian Spain, in his first period with Atletico Madrid, he had scored seven goals in a mere ten games against Barcelona, and last year took that total to 11 in 17 games. The goal he would notch in this particular game however may well have been the most galling for the Cules.

As the expected onslaught raged on the pitch, Torres watched from the sidelines. For over half-an-hour the attacks battered at the white wall Di Matteo had organised to prevent his team capitulating under the pressure. Chance after chance was squandered, but still a Barça goal didn’t come; Messi even crashed a penalty against the bar and away, as the home team charged forward. With just one substitute change remaining, Chelsea’s Italian manager threw the fresh legs of Torres into the fray with ten minutes to play, detailing him to defend the left flank of the stubborn defence.

Another home attack broke down, and the ball fell to Torres. Trying to drive downfield to ease the pressure, he hit the ball forward and then chased. Possession was lost though, and Torres slowed to an amble, then a trot forsaking his defensive position. The ball was driven into the Chelsea box for the umpteenth time, but another block diverted the ball up onto Ashley Cole’s chest. The full-back lashed the ball clear, with surely ne’er a thought to it being a potential through ball. It was simply a hack away from danger.

As the TV screen followed the ball however, Fernando Torres also honed into view. His aborted breakout had taken him past the last defender, and as the ball dropped to his feet around the halfway line, he was clear. Only                 Carles Puyol was even in the same screen, but he was some 15 metres behind the galloping striker. Back in Spain, and at a ground where he had scored a number of times previously, Torres shed the cement overcoat that had hampered so much of his play for Chelsea, skated clear, rounded Valdes and rolled the ball into the net. “Ooooh,” orgasmed Gary Neville as Torres turned away, sinking to his knees in front of the home fans who were probably shouting anything except “Bueno, El Niño!” Two minutes into injury time, Torres had returned and thrust an estoque into the worn-out bull that was the Blaugrana team.

Little guys and big guys – Tales of dreams and drama.

All the best stories follow a similar line. Firstly, there’s this little guy, unknown, quiet, but dedicated, never upsetting anyone, simply getting on with his ever-so-simple understated life. Deep down though, locked away in the secret secluded corner of his mind, where amazing hopes can survive untouched by the harsh cruelty of reality, he has his dream. He dreams about the day when everyone will know his name, recognise him, respect him and smile; when they’ll celebrate his achievements, and nod approvingly at him; when he becomes a big guy. It’s never going to happen of course, he’s sure of that, but he has his dream to keep him warm on the cold and lonely nights, and he keeps wishing.

Then, there’s this big guy. He’s OK. Quite often not a bad sort of chap really, but he’s hogged all the glory for himself, and when the little guy tangles with the big guy, the outcome is only going one way, isn’t it? Both the little guy and the big guy want to be on the big stage where all the brightest lights shine. Even if he gets there, the little guy knows he may not get a starring role. He may only appear briefly, but if he can just beat the big guy, he would have his ticket to the ball, get to mix with the big players, his wish would come true. It would be something no-one could ever take away from. For a while at least, he’ll have become a big guy as well.

Sadly, of course, dreams are mere whims of fancy. They’re never meant to played out in real life. Never tested in real life. Never seen in real life. That little guy can wish all he likes, but to quote Lev Grossman, “If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.” Dreams are for stories, as novelist Grossman would confirm, and that’s where they stay. Well, perhaps. Sometimes, just sometimes, wishing can make it so, dreams get into stories, and stories get into real life, and the little guy does become the big guy. Sometimes, just like the stories that so often begin with, “Once upon a time…” the little guy gets to go to the ball. Don’t believe me? Well read on. Continue reading →

The 1971 Cup Winners’ Cup – When Chelsea’s debutants overcame the Old Masters of European football.

After winning the FA Cup in 1970, defeating Leeds United in a couple of brutal battles first at Wembley, and then in the replay at Old Trafford, Chelsea entered the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Under the guidance of their young and upwardly mobile coach Dave Sexton, the club were keen to prove their credentials of being more than a showy collection of flashy players more at home in Carnaby Street than on a football pitch. With the FA Cup victory suggesting the club were on an upward trajectory, European football was the ideal place to stake their claim. It was their first venture into European competition. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Continue reading →

Frank Lampard – The outstanding English midfielder of the decade – probably.

In the summer of 2001, Frank Lampard left West Ham United and moved across London to join Chelsea. In those days, any thoughts of a Russian oligarch taking control of the Stamford Bridge club, “parking his tanks on our lawn and started firing £50 notes” as Arsenal’s David Dein famously opined, hardly even entered the realms fanciful caprice. Chelsea were under the charge of Ken Bates, managed by Claudio Ranieri – very much in his ‘Tinkerman’ incarnation – and plunging headlong into a financial morass. Continue reading →

Alexandre Pato – The teenage sensation who had his future stolen away by injury.

Over the years, the camisa seleção brasileira canarinhohas has been worn by a number football’s most celebrated forwards. Pelé, Sócrates, Zico, Falcao, Ronaldinho are just a few names that immediatelyspring to mind. On 26 March 2008 in the unlikely setting of Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, another name jostled to be added to that illustrious litany of talent when Alexandre Pato made his international debut in a Friendly against Sweden and announced himself to the watching world by netting mere seconds into his time as a full Brazilian international.

At just 18, it seemed that Brazil had another gem to place into its crown of glorious talents. An elegant style, fluid movement, an ability to dribble past opponents and the crucial eye for a goal had many observers ready to anoint the new hero of Jogo Bonito. Cruel twists of fate with recurring injuries as his career progressed though meant that the full flowering of a nascent talent that promised so much was denied a chance to fully blossom. Continue reading →

Michael Essien – Chelsea’s Perpetual Motion Man

In the summer of 2005, just after José Mourinho had made Chelsea the champions of England for the first time in fifty years, Michael Essien signed for the club. Olympique Lyonnais had found a bid of around £25million too difficult to rebuff. Two Ligue 1 titles in as many seasons with Les Gones illustrated Essien’s ability and his presence would serve to further ramp up the quality of the midfield of a team that had just romped away with the Premier League title by a dozen points.

In the 2004-05 season, a midfield trio of Lampard, Makélélé and Tiago had metaphorically swept all before them, but when Mourinho described the Ghanaian as being, “the best we can get for his position and he can play anywhere in midfield,” it was clear that the 22-year-old had been lined up to take over from the manager’s compatriot. Here was a player of such abundant physical reserves that, after a metronomic display in a pulsating midfield, legend had it that he would go for a run to burn off surplus energy. Continue reading →

Gianfranco Zola – The man, the magic.

There’ll be fearsome arguments about who is the best ‘foreign’ import to British football. Some will argue for Cantona or Schmeichel at Manchester United, Henry or Bergkamp at Arsenal. Others will tout for their particular favourites. Chelsea fans would perhaps posit Drogba. What may be less contentious though is the most likeable of imports to the British game – or perhaps the least disliked anyway. Is there much argument that such accolade should fall to Gianfranco Zola? In the nineties, the little Sardinian was exceptional at three clubs, covering the decade; two in Italy, Napoli and Parma, and then when donned in Chelsea blue at Stamford Bridge, he charmed so many fans of all clubs with incandescent magic in his boots and an infectious smile on his face.

Stardom came late to Zola. At 23 years of age, he was still playing third tier football in his native Sardinia, when Lucciano Moggi took him to Napoli. If taking a gamble on an unknown player that had seemingly slipped through the net of so many other clubs seemed strange to many, the astute Moggi would reap huge dividends on the move. At the time, the Partenopei were enjoying a golden period at the San Paolo, with the incomparable Diego Maradona in his pomp and sweeping all before him, aided and abetted by the razor-sharp finishing of Brazilian striker Careca. For a player plunged into the torrid world of Serie A from the more sedate backwaters of Sardinian domestic football, it was a finishing school par excellence, and one that benefitted Zola immensely. He would go on to be the anointed successor to the Argentine magician and the club would win the Scudetto and Italian Super Cup in his time there. In his final season with the club, the impish Zola would accumulate more assists than any other player in the league.

In four seasons with Napoli, he would increase both the number of games played, and amount of goals scored in each succeeding term. Financial strife hit the club however, and Zola was one of the more marketable assets available to bring in much needed money. Parma paid some ₤13 million for him and, after scoring 32 goals in slightly more than a century of appearances, he moved to the Crociati.

At the time, Parma were riding the crest of a sponsorship wave that would, later, come crashing down around them. When Zola joined in 1993 however, success was still the order of the day, and under the charge of Nevio Scala, a UEFA Cup triumph was secured in 1995. The following year however saw the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, and the end of Zola’s time in Parma would quickly follow. Wedded to a rigid team structure of 4-4-2, and convinced of the virtue of playing Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa at the spearhead of his team, Ancelotti’s decision pushed Zola out to a wide midfield position that hardly suited his abilities. After two seasons under Scala when he scored 22 goals in 51 games, and then followed it up with 28 in the same number of appearances, being shunted out to the flanks – and even the bench on occasions – inevitably blunted Zola’s striking sharpness. In the 1995-96 season he would net a dozen times in 36 games and in the following term, things deteriorated even more. He would score twice in 12 games. Zola had a choice. At 30 years of age, he could see out his time in Italy and watch his career dwindle into anonymity, or he could he could look for a new club. He chose the latter.

In West London, Glenn Hoddle had moved on to the England hot seat, and Ken Bates had installed Ruud Gullit in his place. Having played in Serie A, the Dutchman had significant contacts in Italy, and used them to persuade Zola to come to England. A £4.5million cheque secured his services. At the time, many thought it a foolhardy gamble to pay out for a player already arguably past his best and into the latter years of his career. They would be proved to be so very wrong. This was still the time when nobody at Stamford Bridge had heard of Roman Abramovich, and the club hadn’t secured a trophy for more than two decades. The arrival of the little Italian would change all that though. An FWA award of Footballer of the Year in his first term in England speaks of the impact he had on the club – and the game in general. Not only as an outstanding player, but apparently a thoroughly nice bloke as well.

Mention the name of Zola to any Chelsea fan and a misty-eyed glance into the middle distance will be accompanied by a gentle sigh of reflective appreciation. Not only did he bring success to the club, but he did so with a smiling countenance and a professionalism that would set new standards. A brace of FA Cup victories, a European triumph in the Cup Winners Cup when a half-fit Zola came off the bench to win the game with a sumptuous strike, and a UEFA Super Cup required space to be found in a Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet more accustomed to the acquisition of dust rather than silverware.

There were goals, of course, but there was magic too. Eighty strikes for a team that was never really threatening the major powers of the game is success enough, but for so many fans, it wasn’t the number of strikes that made Gianfranco Zola such an icon of the time, it was his ebullience and sheer entertainment value. Dancing feet, and the ability to beat the same player three times in a telephone kiosk were the entrancing memories that he brought, and when he scored goals, so many were gems that still warm the hearts of fans inclined to reminisce wearing blue-tinted spectacles.

Ask Chelsea fans to recount their favourite moment of Zola magic and you may get a variety of answers, such was the stardust sprinkled on his play in so many games. The thumping strike that won Chelsea’s first European trophy for more than 25 years. The back-heal flick from a corner that bamboozled Norwich. Any number of poetically converted free-kicks curled past befuddled goalkeepers. The time that he was hemmed in by the corner flag by Liverpool defenders, but danced away from them, putting Jamie Carragher on his backside twice in quick succession. All were moments were to savour.

A somewhat spiteful fate conspired that the arrival of Abramovich coincided with the departure of Zola. A club in financial trouble couldn’t afford the offer of a new contract, and Zola agreed to return to Sardinia and Cagliari. Legend has it that Abramovich offered a hatful of money for the 36-year-old to stay with the club, but Zola, ever the honourable man, had given his word to Cagliari and wouldn’t renege in his vow. Hardly anyone would have expected anything different from Zola. He would arrive there and see them to promotion in his first term – of course, he would. It was just one more piece of magic from the incomparable Gianfranco Zola. Icon of the nineties.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Names of the Nineties’ series on These Football Times website).

 

Dennis Wise – The Beating Heart of Chelsea’s Nineties Revival.

Whilst some may contend that it isn’t true of a particular team, it’s one of those enduring truisms that all teams, especially the more successful ones of recent times, that each had at least one player of this type. He’s the player that your own fans take to their hearts, but supporters of other clubs look upon with a disdain bordering on contempt. You love him for his commitment. Others loathe him for a perceived overstated ability and an indulgence in the dark arts of football’s muck and nettles. They’re the players you love to hate, but also the guys you’d want next to you in the mythical trenches so often referenced in such evaluations of worth. Manchester United had Roy Keane. Arsenal had Patrick Viera. Chelsea had Dennis Wise. Continue reading →

Eidur Gudjohnsen – Iceland’s greatest ever footballer.

 

It’s 24 April 1996 and Iceland are playing Estonia in Tallinn. Starring for the visitors is 34-year-old Arnór Guðjohnsen, one of the country’s top strikers who would net 17 times for his country in his career. Sitting on the substitute’s bench is Arnór’s 17-year-old son, Eiður. Rumour had it that, assuming the score line allowed such courtesies, the youngster would be brought on towards the end of the game and play alongside his father. Fate took a cruel hand though and an injury to the father was in fact the gateway to the teenager entering play. The sentimental gesture was abandoned, postponed for another time. Continue reading →

The Lament of Stade de Reims – So nearly the first champions of Europe.

When Olympique de Marseille defeated AC Milan in 1993 – regardless of how tainted that victory may, or may not, have been – it ended decades of enforced patience for French football. It had taken almost 40 years for a French club to win the European Cup. Had fortunes taken a slightly different course in 1956 however, the history of European football’s premier club competition could have been so very different. Instead of Los Blancos of Real Madrid becoming the dominant force of continental football, their place in history may well have been taken by Les Rouge et Blanc of Stade de Reims. A club finishing in a mid-table position in Ligue 1 at the end of the 2018-19 season, newly returned to the top tier of French domestic football after a period of relative inconsequence, drifting around the lower leagues, could have been the swaggering aristocrats of the nascent European competition, rather than one of the sans-culottes lamenting over what might have been. Continue reading →