Football loves parallels and narratives, and with one of Chelsea greatest conquering heroes returning to guide the team on the pitch this season, opportunities for such stories have only increased.
Case in point, the final matchday. Today.
Chelsea enter the day in fourth and need a result against Wolverhampton Wanderers (or need Manchester United to beat Leicester City) to guarantee a top-four finish and Champions League qualification for next season. Those are commonly accepted as the minimum expectations for each and every season at Stamford Bridge, regardless of any transfer bans, Youth Revolutions™, or pandemics — it’s been a season, to be sure, this 2019-20.
That of course wasn’t always the case, and those who are in charge of the team, Frank Lampard and Jody Morris, not only remember but know this first-hand. Back in May 2003, those sorts of ambitions were still just dreams. European nights were rarities. And behind the scenes, financial troubles were brewing (once again).
Such stories tend to get embellished over the years, and Chelsea were not on the brink of collapse by any means, but we still needed that final day victory more than anything back then.
That was made quite clear to the players on the day, as Lampard again detailed when prompted in his pre-match press conference on Friday. He played the full 90 of that famous 2-1 win over Liverpool — both teams entering the day on 64 points, in 4th and 5th, separated only by goal difference in Chelsea favor — while Morris was an unused substitute in what turned out this be his final game for the club as a player (Gianfranco Zola’s, too).
The hero of the day was of course Jesper Gronkjær, scorer of the winning goal, which turned not only into a £20m Champions League-qualifying goal, but the “£1 billion goal” thanks to Roman Abramovich’s takeover later that summer. Without Gronkjær’s goal, we might not be talking about minimum European expectations, let alone eye-watering spending sprees and my favorite new term, “Das Reboot”. (Not sure if it’s meant to be pronounced re-boot or re-boat in this instance, but it involves Werner & Havertz, which is cool.)
On a sidenote, just as in the 2-2 Miracle at Camp Nou, when Ramires’ goal was the actual winning goal and Torres’s last-minute goalgasm only made sure the job was done in maximum emotion was achieved, it was actually Marcel “G.O.A.T.” Desailly’s equalizer that got Chelsea over the line in 2003; Gronkjær’s goal only made sure of the outcome. Gronkjær did collect the assist on Desailly’s header, incidentally.
But anyway. Fourth-place Chelsea needed a result on the final day to qualify for the Champions League in 2003, and fourth-place Chelsea (probably) need a result on the final day to qualify for the Champions League in 2020 as well. Time is a flat circle.
Lampard was keen to play down such parallels however, pointing out that Chelsea are in a drastically different position financially, competitively, and in a way, emotionally as well now than 17 years ago.
“I’m not sure we should relate that feeling to now at Chelsea. That was a huge moment but now we’re in a different place. If we make it into the Champions League, it is financially a big deal for us but I still think we are a club that will look to push on next year and onwards.
“What is driving us right now is that we work all year – myself, the staff and all the players - to try to be successful and if we can manage to nail down top four, if we can get the right result on Sunday, we can look and say it has been a really positive step forward.”
“We’re not quite in that situation this time — the club was on the line in 2003 and the Champions League final was a huge moment. Now we’re in a moment where at the end of our season we have an opportunity to get a position that maybe people didn’t expect us to be in.
“It’s not the ultimate achievement but it would be some sort of achievement so I’ll let the players know that in very straight terms. They have to feel it, that’s the most important thing.”
-Frank Lampard; source: Chelsea FC
There will be no special motivational speakers brought in today. The significance of the day won’t be overstated. Top four isn’t our ultimate ambition. It’s a step towards it. And so we act accordingly.
That said ... must win. (Well, qualify.)