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The Decade Edition: Picking the best Chelsea XI from the past fifty years

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UEFA Champions League Final - Chelsea Training Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

As a self-confessed Chelsea nerd I occasionally like to come up with best or favourite XI’s. Who does not enjoy a cold beer discussing the wonders of Dan Petrescu? Maybe the most challenging of these scenarios is one I am about to delve into – I call it the Decade Edition. Hopefully you enjoy me reminiscing and I definitely look forward to seeing the comments section below. I might send a prize (some Chelsea memorabilia) to whoever comes up with the best team.

The Concept – pick a Chelsea XI with two outfield players from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s; the goalkeeper can be from any. For each player pick the season to represent their form (so if you pick 2014/15 Didier Drogba just to get him in there, he plays like 2014/15 Didier Drogba). You may use any formation you like.

The sheer amount of players I had to leave out to fit people in is staggering. It is truly an impossible task. Deciding on just two players who played between 2004 and 2010 is virtually impossible. As someone who grew up watching the Chelsea side of the 1990s, finding two players from my childhood team was tough. My knowledge of the 1970s and 1980s comes from family and watching a lot of Chelsea TV, so I feel less informed of these periods.

Anyway, without further ado… opting for a 4-3-3 formation

My Chelsea XI (this was really, really hard to come up with…), I have opted for a 4-3-3 formation:

GK – Petr Čech (2004/05)
LB – Graeme Le Saux (1988/89)
CB – John Terry (2014/15)
CB – Ron Harris (1970/71)
RB – Dan Petrescu (1997/98)
CM – Michael Essien (2006/07)
CM – Frank Lampard (2004/05)
CM – Roberto Di Matteo (1998/99)
LW – Eden Hazard (2014/15)
CF – Kerry Dixon (1983/84)
RW – Charlie Cooke (1970/71)

Goalkeeper Petr Čech (2004/05) – this may well be the only unanimous selection across the board. What can you say about Chelsea’s greatest ever goalkeeper? He was a key piece in a historically world class defence. I remember being amazed seeing an infographic before the Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid Champions League final. The analysis focused upon how outrageously good Atlético’s defence had been all season. Tucked to the right of Atlético (showing better defensive statistics) was one team in the past twenty years. That team? Chelsea. It seems unfathomable now that we once went an entire league campaign conceding just 15 goals.

Left BackGraeme Le Saux (1988/89) – admittedly this pick feels like the only one where I have snuck someone into the team. The prospect of any other 1980s player featuring at left back was grim, so I will make do with an incredibly young Graeme Le Saux. An important part of the team and solid left back from 1997 to 2003, Le Saux actually started his career at Chelsea in the late 1980s. He made his debut in against Portsmouth in 1989 as Chelsea won the Second Division that season. He began to establish himself in the early 1990s before being sold after a bust-up with the manager (proper Chels).

Centre BackJohn Terry (2014/15) – what a career John Terry has enjoyed at Chelsea. It would be nice to cheat and include him in the 1990s decade, but rules are rules. When Terry eventually hangs up his boots I think his renaissance in 2014/15 might be his fondest season. Written off and cast aside, Terry had quite possibly his best ever season. Transitioning from an aggressive ball winning centre half to a composed reader and organiser, Terry calmly marshalled a title winning back four. Terry is Chelsea’s greatest ever captain and centre half – he was always going to feature. To completely dominate the way he did with next to no athletic prowess really does show just how intelligent Terry is as a defender. Woefully miscast as a kick-it-head-it centre back, Terry is entirely two footed and capable of playing exquisite long passes.

Centre BackRon Harris (1970/71) – any match I have watched from that glorious team of the 1970s often involved Ron Harris doing Ron Harris things. In an age where winning the ball from any angle was enough, Harris was a master of destruction. Widely regarded as one of the toughest footballers to ever play the game, he inspired fear in opponents. His hatchet job on Eddie Gray, the Leeds winger, in the 1970 FA Cup Final replay is a thing of beauty. Underpinning his uncompromising style of play was actually a lot of talent. A true icon of Chelsea and possibly the least likely footballer to pull out of a 50/50 in history – would probably two foot a rhino if it meant preventing a goal.

Right BackDan Petrescu (1997/98) – an irrepressibly stylish right back, who had all the technical ability in the world, Petrescu remains one of my favourite all-time Chelsea players. Chipping goalkeepers, playing no-look passes and secretly very scrappy when required – what was not to love? Often scoring 5-6 goals a season from open play added to his aura. Going from a traditional right back, in Steve Clarke, to Petrescu was eye-opening. Petrescu was continental, fresh and under the stewardship of Hoddle an exciting addition. I think he might give modern Chelsea fans a heart attack with his cavalier attitude, but I will forever hold him in the highest regard.

Defensive MidfieldMichael Essien (2006/07) – my favourite Chelsea player of all-time. There was no way Essien was not making this team. Before injury ravaged his career, Michael Essien was a destroyer of worlds and the most dynamic box-to-box midfielder in football. He could play as a centre half or as a right back and he would probably have played in goal if you asked him. The Bison was a tank in every sense of the word and could singlehandedly win a midfield battle against the very best in Europe. A scorer of spectacular and often important goals, he gave absolutely everything for the shirt at all times. His partnership with Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard remains our greatest ever midfield combination. I might write an extended piece on him at some point. If you were compiling a list of the greatest individual performances from a Chelsea player, Essien may have multiple efforts in a top 10.

Central MidfieldFrank Lampard (2004/05) – amazingly I originally could not fit Lampard into my team, opting for Ashley Cole at left-back as part of my 2000s selection. However, some creative freelancing meant I could return him to his rightful position. What is there to say about the Chelsea career of Frank Lampard? Like Terry, the question probably remains as to which season was his best? I have gone with his 2004/05 season ahead of others because I think it is where we saw Lampard become truly world class. The goals arrived and so did the recognition. FWA Footballer of the Year, PFA Fans’ Player of the Year, FIFPro World XI, Premier League Player of the Season, PFA Team of the Year and runner-up to Ronaldinho in the Ballon d’Or and FIFA Player of the Year. Breathtakingly good in the Premier League and devastating in Europe, he was truly spectacular. A true all-round midfielder who was defensively sound as well as vastly creative: such an underrated footballer.

Central Midfield Roberto Di Matteo (1998/99) – my hero growing up: I had the hair, the boots and the sweatbands. It is easy to forget, given his achievements as a manager, just how phenomenally talented Roberto Di Matteo was. His goals against Middlesbrough, Tottenham and Arsenal are quite simply outrageous. Oh, and he gave the world that celebration. He was this suave cosmopolitan midfielder who linked everything so beautifully and wore Valsport boots. Di Matteo had everything at his disposal, particularly a wonderful range of passing and vision. In many ways he was ahead of his time. If you wanted a technical central midfielder with the physicality to play today, Di Matteo was the blueprint.

Left Wing Eden Hazard (2014/15) – it is easy to forget how good Eden Hazard was in 2014/15 because of the season he has just endured. Hazard was unplayable during a campaign where he dragged Chelsea towards the title. Consistently double or even triple teamed, that wonderful dribbling ability coupled with his low centre of gravity was on full display. Hazard virtually scored or assisted against every top quality opponent, while obliterating everyone else. He is a precocious talent who needs to rediscover his form (and fitness) and allow Antonio Conte to mould him into a consistent world beater. But looking back this was a season that crowned him the Footballer of the Year and no one really came close to him. His future may eventually lead him to Madrid, but I hope we get another 2-3 years of Hazard because he really is a joy to watch.

Centre ForwardKerry Dixon (1983/84) – given the names that you can pick from to lead the line of this Chelsea XI, Kerry Dixon may be something of a surprise. However, he may be the most natural goal scorer the club has ever seen. A crucial piece in our promotion campaign but equally a goal scoring machine at the highest level, Dixon was an outstanding finisher. What makes it more impressive is the level of the Chelsea side he played in. Unlike Osgood or Drogba, who were centre forwards in infinitely more talented teams, Dixon’s supporting cast was good but nowhere near that level. He was quick, had two very good feet and was a prolific goal scorer. Underrated outside of Chelsea, but any highlight clip will show someone who scored every sort of goal with regularity. His goal at Arsenal defined “limbs all over the shop”.

Right WingCharlie Cooke (1970/71) – my dad’s favourite Chelsea player. Cooke was capable of playing in any era and was an outrageously gifted dribbler. In an era where defenders could just clatter you to the ground and no one would bat an eyelid, Cooke stood apart. Skilful beyond measure, he made the game look easy on pitches that Sunday League footballers might turn their noses up at. I am often reminded of a goal where he turned Bobby Moore (yes, that one) inside out before scoring against West Ham. From the little I have seen Cooke seemed to be of another world, slaloming through midfield and beating defenders like they were playing two entirely different sports. His assist for Peter Osgood’s goal in the 1970 FA Cup Final (replay) was utterly brilliant. The player I wish that I had the opportunity to watch in the flesh.

So there we have it. A team that has some of my favourites and some of our best – who would you choose?