WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
In 1998, Chelsea reached a major European final for the first time in 27 years when they sent Italian surprise package Vicenza packing in the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge. However, it took a comeback of epic proportions to secure a victory that Blues fans will never forget…
In recent years, Chelsea have welcomed most of Italy’s grand clubs on prestigious European nights at Stamford Bridge. AC Milan were the Blues’ first-ever Champions League opponents in 1999 and, since then, Lazio, Juventus, Roma and Inter have all visited west London in football’s premier club competition.
But it is the name of another Italian side – not one of the traditional greats – that lives on in Chelsea folklore as the opponent on one of their greatest European nights yet.
That team is Vicenza, who showed up at the Bridge in April 1998 for a European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final with a 1-0 advantage from the first leg at their Stadio Romeo Menti. Oddly, both clubs were wearing their away colours: Chelsea in yellow; Vicenza in grey.
Just over half an hour into the return leg, the team from the Veneto appeared to have sealed their place in the Stockholm final when Pasquale Luiso struck to make it 2-0 on aggregate to the Italians, who boasted an away goal too. Chelsea needed three goals in order to overcome the deficit – not even a draw would be enough to spare them.
Their plight was symbolised by a gesture from the goalscorer. More than a mere celebration, Luiso made clear what he believed he had achieved for his club as he raised a single finger to his lips, suggesting that his goal would silence the excitable Chelsea support.
Whatever Luiso thought, he was wrong. The goal – and the celebration – roused the crowd to double the noise level inside Stamford Bridge. Graeme Le Saux once spokeof how the place “rocked” to the sound of Chelsea chanting on those European nights in the late Nineties, but on no other occasion did it reach the decibel level registered as Vicenza fell to an epic wave of self-belief from the stands.
Three minutes after Luiso’s opening act, Gus Poyet pounced on the rebound after Gianfranco Zola’s shot was spilled by Pierluigi Brivio and forced the ball home to level the scores on the night. As the Uruguayan carried the ball back to the halfway line and whipped up the crowd in the half-completed West Stand, there was a sense that something special might be on the cards.
Half-time was a nervous waste of 15 minutes – the only thing anyone wanted was the whistle to begin the second half and a famous comeback.
Then, six minutes after the restart and the two most famous Italians on the pitch combined to score a second – for the English team. Recently appointed player-manager Gianluca Vialli supplied the assist and little Zola arrived at the back post, unmarked, to thump home a rare headed goal. One more goal would do it now for Chelsea.
20 minutes remained when the sight of Mark Hughes on the side of the pitch, preparing to enter the fray, brought a sense of reassurance to the home support. The experienced Welsh striker’s hair was fast turning the same colour as Vicenza’s silver away shirts and he probably thought he had seen it all in his impressive career, but even he cannot have expected what would happen nine minutes later.
A long kick forward from goalkeeper Ed de Goey, at a time when Chelsea fans were beginning to feel desperate for the clinching goal, was won in the air by Hughes, who landed and turned in one movement. He burst towards the Vicenza penalty area as his own flick-on dropped out of the sky and struck the ball on the bounce, unleashing a sublime left-footed effort that flew across the Italian goalkeeper and into the net.
One of the greatest goals in Chelsea history had completed one of the greatest games. The shouts, the bouncing fans in the stands, the players piling on top of one another in front of them – all of it is ingrained in the memory of those who were there.
Future Milan star Massimo Ambrosini was shown a red card two minutes from time to further cheers from the Blues support and, when the final whistle blew, reserves and coaching staff flooded the pitch – Chelsea were in their first European final for 27 years and the emotion among those present was tangible.
Vicenza. It’s the name of a city to most, even a football club to some, but Chelsea supporters use it as a byword for the evening when their club returned to the big time, on the continental stage.
Thursday 16 April, 1998:
Chelsea 3 Vicenza 1 (Agg: 3-2)
Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final (2nd leg)
Chelsea: De Goey; Newton (Charvet 70), Clarke, Leboeuf, Duberry, Le Saux; Wise, Morris (Hughes 70), Poyet; Vialli, Zola (Myers 81)
Vicenza: Brivio; Mendez, Belotti, Stovini (Dicara 62); Viviani; Schenardi (Di Napoli 82), Di Carlo (Otero 82), Ambrosini, Ambrosetti; Zauli; Luiso