If football is enjoyed through the moments it provides, then no Chelsea supporter can ever be unhappy about a tie against Barcelona. This is a match up that has displayed the best players and managers the game of football has had to offer. It has showcased refereeing for good and for ill. It has had impossible goals, impossible comebacks and late, late winners. Not to mention its constant unpredictability. And that’s just the last two games.
It seems the Catalan club with the English public school colours keep popping up to test different eras of Chelsea progression. Plenty talk about history but if you want to really understand the kind of club Chelsea are, you have to understand where it came from. And for that, looking through a Barcelona shaped looking glass will help you at least part of the way. Here’s why:
Chelsea v Barcelona, Fairs Cup semi-final 1965/66 (2-2 on agg, Barcelona win 5-0 in the third leg)
The best place to start is the beginning, the story of how Chelsea and Barcelona first met 52 years ago.
The Chelsea 1965-66 side was a side which Roman Abramovich would be yearning for now. Chelsea were a young, homegrown and exceptionally talented and playing at a Stamford Bridge that could hold 60,000 plus. Tommy Docherty’s side were a tremendous unit but also had the flourish of truly gifted individuals. This was a time when Chelsea were crafting many of the idiosyncrasies cemented in the club today. The Shed End first took its name at the behest of the supporters. It was also at Docherty’s instruction that Chelsea’s traditional blue shirts were first joined by blue shorts and white socks at this time. Perfect for a young Peter Osgood, Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti to introduce themselves from youth team “ones to watch” into footballing folklore. The first of these gained a statue outside Stamford Bridge, the second became Chelsea’s record appearance maker and the third gained a footballing analogy as a nickname (the “Cat”). The team was captained by the future England manager Terry Venables who would play his last game for Chelsea in the Camp Nou.
In parallel with domestic progress, Europe was also on the agenda for a Chelsea side that Docherty had taken from the second division to within hope of the league title. The forerunner of the UEFA Cup/Europa League was another stage to showcase the talent of the team that 65/66 season. Chelsea’s semi-final opponents Barcelona need only have consulted Roma and AC Milan about the merits of the novice European side from London. Both had been dispatched as Chelsea motored on in 4 competitions. Roma had been punished by Chelsea’s cleverness in a 4-1 win while Milan, according to the Evening Standard, had been simply “overrun” with Chelsea’s “decoy running, overlaps, individual breaks and short corners, long ones, wall passes.”
In a hint at future matches between the clubs, the semi-final tie was tight with the deadlock being broken dramatically. Initially, the two sides were became impossible to separate over the course of two legs. Barcelona 2-0 winners at Camp Nou, Chelsea ran out 2-0 winners at Stamford Bridge. Gamesmanship also was in evidence as Docherty invited the Chelsea Fire Brigade to flood the Stamford Bridge pitch in order to obtain more time for some of the injured Chelsea players to recover before the second leg victory.
As this was football before the age of the penalty shootout, ties could be decided by coin toss and third legs. Having lost the coin toss after a 2-2 goal aggregate deadlock over the two legs, Chelsea were forced to return to the Camp Nou. Barcelona this time made no mistake with an emphatic 5-0 win at the Camp Nou on the way to winning the competition outright. It would be 34 years before the sides met again in a tie that replayed the past but also gave a taste of the future for anyone who’d been alert enough to spot it.
Past and Future…
Chelsea v Barcelona, Champions League Quarter Final 1999/2000 (Barcelona win 6-4 on aggregate)
45 years after becoming the first English club to be invited to Europe’s top table, Chelsea finally got round to playing European Cup football. The timing was fitting too. The tie marked the zenith of a regenerated Chelsea side, just under 30 years after the disastrous attempt to renovate Stamford Bridge that had led the club to financial ruin and decades of decline. The decay of these years had been replaced by a sense of renewal after a mid-90s renaissance started by Glen Hoddle in 1994 and pushed on by his successors Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli.
By 1999/00, Chelsea had won every competition they had entered (bar the Premier League) in just 6 years following Hoddle’s appointment. Stamford Bridge mirrored the sense of regeneration, having been redeveloped in all but one part of the ground. Barcelona, however, were no work in progress and would test every credential of a Chelsea side who’d gone further into the competition than expected for first timers. Barcelona arrived in SW6 with a who’s who of the footballing day. Louis Van Gaal’s side were genuine blue chip: Rivaldo, Kluivert and Figo was already a Hollywood front three but they were supported by a much touted talented young midfielder called Xavi, the captain Pep Guardiola (suspended for the first leg) and Philip Cocu in midfield. It seemed a step too far for Chelsea to do much more than know their place and bow out gracefully. However, Gianfranco Zola and Tore Andre Flo had other ideas as Chelsea roared to a 3-1 victory.
Nevertheless, history was to repeat itself again. As in 1965/66, Chelsea were punished in the Camp Nou as Barcelona first levelled the tie, with Kluivert, Figo and Rivaldo goals, before finishing Chelsea off in extra time. 5-1 the final score. Almost déjà vu but this time in another new competition.
However, though it felt as if Chelsea had left Camp Nou empty handed after a sound beating, the tie was to have other unseen ramifications for the club and for English football. Unnoticed amongst the drama of the two ties was a first competitive visit to Stamford Bridge for a young member of the Barcelona coaching staff. The next time Chelsea played Barcelona, it would be that same coaching staffer who would contrive to write a rather different chapter in the history of the two sides and European football as a whole…