Let’s go back to a time when Chelsea wore one of the defining kits of the 90’s, with the Autoglass and Umbro sponsors. A time before millions of pounds were at the club’s disposal, a time when having many players from the youth setup was the norm rather than the more recent exception.
Chelsea started the 1997/98 season fresh from winning the FA Cup under Ruud Gullit. They were bouncing with optimism to be playing in the Cup Winner’s Cup after a heartbreaking semifinal exit to Real Zaragoza a mere three seasons ago. Despite having a very good season, finishing sixth in the league and winning the FA Cup, there were problems in defense.
The Blues conceded 55 goals in the league the previous season, so the priorities were finding a good keeper and a left back. They bought goalkeeper Ed de Goey for £2.25 million pounds from Feyenoord, and left backs Celestine Babayaro and Graeme Le Saux for £2.25 and £5 million respectively. Le Saux was coming back after winning the league with Blackburn two seasons prior.
They also strengthened by bringing in Bernard Lambourde from Bordeaux as backup to Frank Leboeuf and Steve Clarke. They also added a very experienced player in Gus Poyet on a free transfer from Real Zaragoza; and a young player from Norway, Tore Andre Flo, for a snip.
This squad was assembled for two purposes: add depth, and complement the homegrown players and present experienced heads with more international talent.
By February 16, 1998, the team was flying high in the league in second place, in the semifinals of the League Cup and in the quarters of the Cup Winner’s Cup.
But behind the scenes, a fractious relationship was developing between owner Ken Bates and player-manager Ruud Gullit, which came to a head on February 16. Gullit was sacked and was hired by Newcastle. Gianluca Vialli was appointed player-manager.
Vialli’s first game in charge turned out to be the second leg of the semifinal of the Coca Cola Cup (League Cup) against Arsenal. Chelsea were down 2-1 from the first leg and eventually prevailed 3-1 at home to progress through on aggregate to the final at Wembley.
They would go on to win the Coca Cola Cup that season, beating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the final. But despite this, Vialli’s side had a wretched run form in the league in the lead up to the Cup Winner’s Cup semifinal second leg against Vicenza. They had five defeats and three wins, but they had won their last game against London rivals, Tottenham. This run of form also included a 1-0 away loss to Vicenza.
Vialli made one change from the first leg with Gus Poyet (who wasn’t in the matchday squad for the first leg) coming in for Dan Petrescu. The lineup featured Ed de Goey, Frank Leboeuf, Steve Clarke, Michael Duberry, Graeme Le Saux, Jody Morris, Eddie Newton, Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet, Gianfranco Zola and the manager himself, Gianluca Vialli.
Vicenza manager Francesco Guidolin (known in the Premier League for managing Swansea City in the ill-fated 2016/17 season, where they had 3 permanent managers) made no changes from the first leg.
The game started very well with both sides attacking with abandon. Vicenza wanted the early away goal put themselves in control of the tie. They sought out the spaces behind the Chelsea defense, and, soon enough, Vicenza took the lead in the 32′ with Pasquale Luiso taking advantage of the helter skelter nature of the Chelsea defense.
Vicenza were leading 2-0 on aggregate, with the away goal. Chelsea needed three goals to go through.
Vicenza’s opener prompted a response from the home side.
In the 34′, Vialli’s attempted pass was deflected into the path of the rampaging Le Saux, who took the ball to the byline. He crossed it into the box, where the Vicenza defenders dealt with it. But it only went as far as Zola at the edge of the box, who let fly from distance. The Vicenza keeper, Brivio, parried it as far as Gus Poyet, who finished it off. The two teams went into half time on even keel in the match but with Chelsea needing two more goals to win the tie.
Chelsea started the second half the brighter, creating pressure on the Vicenza backline. That pressure finally told in the 50′, when Vialli carried the ball down the right flank and let fly a perfect cross for Zola, who nestled it perfectly into the net with his head. Clearly, an “Italian Job.”
Chelsea deservedly took the lead in the tie 14 minutes from the end, when substitute Mark Hughes excellently controlled a clearance from de Goey and finished it exquisitely.
Chelsea would go on to meet Stuttgart in the final, which was decided by a Zola strike.
This European campaign has since been looked back at with glowing nostalgia. It made Vialli the youngest manager at the time ever to win a UEFA competition. The season started Vialli’s successful period where he won five trophies in little under three years as manager.
The next season saw Chelsea miss out on the Premier League title by a mere four points in that historic Manchester United treble season. They also lost to Mallorca in heartbreaking circumstances in the semifinals of that season’s Cup Winner’s Cup.
Chelsea would also get to compete in their maiden Champions League campaign in the 99/00 season, where they would end up making an encouraging run to the quarters.