As the Champions League group stage kicks off this week, we take you through the remarkable story of the last time a Premier League club won the tournament; Chelsea’s incredible triumph in 2012.
Having finished a distant second to Manchester United in 2010/11, Italian boss Carlo Ancelotti was sacked and replaced by Portuguese Andre Villas-Boas for 2011/12, the Blues paying a world record £13.3 million to pinch the 34-year-old from Porto, whom he had led to Europa League glory a month earlier.
Captained by defensive stalwart John Terry and backed up by an impressive and expensive array of stars recruited from the best part of the last decade, Chelsea made several signings in the summer transfer window. Romelu Lukaku, Juan Mata, Raul Meireles and Oriol Romeu all joined, while Thibaut Courtois and Ulises Davila were recruited but loaned out for the season.
The club also let a lot of players leave; permanently and on loan, the most notable of which being Yuri Zhirkov, who moved to Anzhi Makhachkala for €15 million.
The first-team squad contained the following names among others: Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Michael Essien, Oriol Romeu, Ramires, Frank Lampard, Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Didier Drogba, John Obi Mikel, Florent Malouda, Raul Meireles, Jose Bosingwa, Salomon Kalou, Daniel Sturridge, Alex and John Terry.
Chelsea avoided the extra stress of the qualifying rounds by virtue of their second-place league finish the season before.
They had opened 2010/11 with two consecutive 6-0 victories, but the wheels came off in early November as they embarked on a run of one win in eight league fixtures.
Form was regained in the new year, however, and the Blues were firmly in the title race with three games to go as they visited Manchester United knowing victory would take them top.
A victory would not come, however. The Red Devils defeated the Blues 2-1 and all but wrapped up the title there and then, Chelsea gaining just a solitary further point from their final two games as Carlo Ancelotti left with a whimper.
The Group Stage
Having performed consistently well in the Champions League in recent years, Villas-Boas’ side were placed in Pot 1 of the draw, meaning they would avoid Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich amongst others.
The Blues were drawn in Group E alongside Bayer Leverkusen, Valencia and Genk. They began their campaign at home to the Germans, overcoming them 2-0 thanks to a belter from David Luiz and a late strike from Juan Mata. David Luiz began his goal in possession in his own half, striding up to the opposition penalty area before moving the ball out wide. The ball then got squared to Fernando Torres who laid it off to the Brazilian, with Luiz calmly guiding it into the far corner.
The Blues then travelled to Valencia for what appeared to be their hardest game on paper. A second-half strike from Frank Lampard had the Blues deservedly in front, but the Spanish side dominated the final exchanges and were rewarded when Salomon Kalou needlessly gave away a penalty for handball.
Roberto Soldado (remember him?) stepped up and beat Petr Cech, and though both sides pressed for a winner in the final minutes, the game finished 1-1.
In the third round of fixtures Chelsea welcomed Belgian side Genk to Stamford Bridge. Raul Meireles, Branislav Ivanovic, Salomon Kalou and Fernando Torres (x2) led a 5-0 dismantling, with four of those goals virtually finishing the game before half time.
At the halfway point of the group stage, Chelsea led at the top with seven points. Bayer Leverkusen were second with six, while Valencia and Genk trailed with two and one respectively.
The Blues next group game was the return fixture in Belgium, with a victory likely to put clear daylight between the Blues and the rest. Ramires had fired Chelsea in front in the first half, while Raul Meireles hit the crossbar.
The Blues were in full control and should have doubled their lead when they were given a penalty, but David Luiz couldn’t convert. The Brazilian was made to pay as Genk scored their first goal of the tournament through striker Jelle Vossen. A golden opportunity had passed Chelsea by, they would return to England with just one point.
Better news came from the group’s other game that night however. Valencia defeated Bayer Leverkusen 3-1 in Spain, a result which meant Chelsea could seal qualification with a victory in Germany in their next game.
They travelled to the BayArena on the 23rd November in indifferent League form. They had dropped out of the top four following a home defeat to Liverpool days before, and questions were beginning to be asked of Andre Villas-Boas’ ability to turn it around.
It appeared a convincing display in Germany might prove to be such a turning point. The blues played very well and led through Didier Drogba’s first Champions League goal of the season just after half-time, but were pegged back after Eren Derdiyok finished a sweeping move.
Having appeared to settle for a useful point, Chelsea were stunned when defender Manuel Friedrich towered a header home from an injury-time corner, sending the blues home with nothing.
Progression was firmly in the balance. Chelsea now sat on eight points after five games, level with Valencia. Leverkusen sat a point ahead and travelled to Genk for their final match, with the Belgians already certain to finish bottom of the group.
The Blues knew victory over Valencia would take them through. They also knew a 0-0 draw would take them through on away goals scored between the two teams. A 1-1 draw or higher, would leave Chelsea relying on a miracle from Genk, while a loss would send the Blues out whatever happened in Belgium.
Cometh the hour, cometh the men. A cauldron of noise at Stamford Bridge lifted the blues to a thumping 3-0 victory. Didier Drogba and Ramires had the blues two up midway through the first half, and Drogba capped a fine display with a third 15 minutes before then end.
It was a great night for the club, who topped the group after Bayer Leverkusen could only draw with Genk.
It proved to be a less successful round of fixtures for English clubs generally however. Arsenal had topped their group with relative comfort, but both Manchester clubs came third in their group, tumbling into the Europa League as a result.
Chelsea didn’t care of course, they were through to the Champions League knockout stage for the ninth consecutive year, but they weren’t finished there.
The Knockout Stage
Before the knockout stage began, Chelsea enjoyed a productive January transfer window. Old faces Nicolas Anelka and Alex were amongst those to depart Stamford Bridge, with the blues bringing in Bolton Wanderers’ Gary Cahill and Genk’s Kevin De Bruyne. Whatever happened to those two?
De Bruyne was immediately loaned back to Belgium, but Cahill would play a big part in the run to come.
Having topped Group E, Chelsea ensured that they avoided each of the other group winners. That meant that they could not face Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Benfica, Real Madrid, Arsenal, APOEL or Barcelona, for one round at least.
They were also certain to avoid Bayer Leverkusen as they came from the same group, meaning Chelsea would face one of Napoli, CSKA Moscow, Basel, Lyon, Marseille, Zenit or AC Milan.
Though it is often disrespectful to talk of which teams you would avoid or particularly like to face, Chelsea will surely have picked Napoli and AC Milan as the two to avoid. As fate would have it, Chelsea drew Napoli and Arsenal drew AC Milan.
Topping the group also ensured that Chelsea would play the second leg at Stamford Bridge, ensuring their fans would be able to cheer them on knowing exactly what their side needed to do to progress.
As it happened, they needed to do a lot. The first leg in Naples started well enough, Juan Mata fired the Blues into the lead after 27 minutes against the run of play but that was as good as it got.
Ezequiel Lavezzi curled home his first Champions League goal just ten minutes later, and Edinson Cavani fortuitously shouldered the Italian side ahead in first half injury-time.
The Blues were making suicidal mistakes throughout the game, and another from David Luiz gifted Napoli with a third in the second half. The blues huffed and puffed but couldn’t get a valuable second away goal and were indebted to a brilliant goal line block from Ashley Cole to keep the deficit at just two goals.
3-1 it finished, Chelsea’s fifth consecutive game without a win in all competitions. The Blues brought that run to an end the following weekend but would taste defeat a further weekend later. That defeat to West Brom cost Andre Villas-Boas his job, and meant he would not be given the chance to turn around the 3-1 deficit his former side faced in Europe.
Former Blues midfielder Roberto Di Matteo was appointed as caretaker, a decision seen as somewhat desperate given the Italian’s undistinguished managerial record up to then.
Chelsea fans got behind him, however they knew they had to be at their hostile best when Napoli travelled to London on the 14th March.
The Blues had to score twice and lived dangerously through the first half. They were criminally open as they forced opening after opening but had their two-goal lead just after half-time, Didier Drogba and John Terry both driving in brilliant headers.
They were ahead in the tie, but only for a few minutes as Gokhan Inler stabbed home a half-volley (the first goal Chelsea had conceded at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League that season). Chelsea needed another in the remaining 35 minutes, and were given a slice of luck when a ricochet from a corner hit a Napoli hand.
Ice cool Frank Lampard smashed home the penalty, and we were set for extra-time. On the eve of extra-time half-time, right back Branislav Ivanovic inexplicably popped up in the Napoli penalty area to tuck home a cut back, and Chelsea were ahead again.
They saw it out, coming through 5-4 on aggregate after one of the all-time greatest Champions League knockout ties.
In the last eight they met Benfica, dispatchers of Manchester United in the Group Stage. Once again, the Blues were given home advantage in the second leg.
This tie proved a far more straight-forward affair. Salomon Kalou gave Chelsea a narrow lead to bring back to London and though were tense moments late on, an injury time goal from Raul Meireles sealed a 2-1 home victory and 3-1 aggregate win.
The Blues were in the semi-final for the sixth time in nine years, a ridiculously impressive record. They had however only progressed from those semi-finals once; in 2008.
The most recent semi-final appearance was the infamous away goal loss to Barcelona in 2009, which to this day remains a dark day for refereeing and surely UEFA. We will not look at that game here, but must note it for it gave an extra edge to Chelsea’s 2012 semi-final, which again was against Barcelona.
The Catalan side were reigning champions and heavy favourites to retain their crown. Chelsea were still underperforming in the Premier League and written off by several pundits. To make their odds even longer, the first leg was at home this time.
The blues did what they had to, they parked the bus. That Barcelona side was one of the best ever assembled and there was no shame in refusing to match them. The game was gruelling, and the 90 minutes were painfully slow for every Blue fan inside the stadium. Those fans would leave that stadium happy.
With half-time knocking and the Chelsea bus standing firm, Frank Lampard brilliantly released Ramires on the left. The tireless Brazilian stormed down to the Barca penalty area and knocked the ball square for Didier Drogba, who calmly guided home for a precious goal.
There’s little point in describing the rest of the game. Barcelona attacked, Chelsea defended and the match finished 1-0.
Just six days later the Blues and their bus travelled to Spain, 90 minutes away from an incredible victory. What happened next is barely believable.
The pattern of the game was identical to the first in the opening exchanges, Barcelona linking up intricately but failing to break through. Just 12 minutes in, the task got harder. Gary Cahill went off with injury.
Barcelona then lost a defender themselves, Gerard Pique going off after a collision with keeper Victor Valdes.
The bus was holding firm but on 35 minutes, Barca drew level through an unlikely source. Defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets poked home at the back post to wipe out Chelsea’s advantage.
Two minutes later John Terry foolishly lashed out at Alexis Sanchez off the ball and was duly given his marching orders. With no lead to protect and down to 10 men (and none of their first-choice centre-halves), it looked to be a long night for the Blues.
The 10 men held out for little over six minutes before Andres Iniesta poked home to leave Chelsea staring into the abyss. Ramires – now filling in at right back – was shown a yellow card that ruled him out of the final, should Chelsea miraculously get there.
Incredibly, just before half-time Ramires galloped forward and latched onto a Frank Lampard through ball. Bearing down on goal, the makeshift right back audaciously chipped Victor Valdes and put Chelsea ahead on away goals.
The tie had spun on its head. All of a sudden Chelsea had something to defend. The bus was getting revved up again.
Football is funny sometimes, Chelsea lasted just three minutes of the second half before Didier Drogba gave away a penalty. To make matters worse, Branislav Ivanovic joined Ramires in the book and ruled himself out of the final along with the Brazilian and captain John Terry.
Lionel Messi stepped up, but did not have the bottle. The Argentine rattled the bar and Chelsea were still ahead.
The minutes continued to pass, still Barcelona could not score. Roberto Di Matteo made the bold move of replacing Didier Drogba with 10 minutes to go, sending on Fernando Torres in his place.
Chelsea hearts momentarily dropped as Alexis Sanchez rolled the ball into the net, but Dani Alves was offside in the build-up. Still they held on.
Messi ran at them and hit the post, Raul Meireles received a yellow card ruling him out of the final as well. Still they held on.
As the game entered stoppage time Barcelona sent every man forward in desperation, wily Spaniard Fernando Torres noticed and lingered by the halfway line.
The ball was launched clear, Torres was in. He bore down on Victor Valdes, knocked the ball round him and tucked into an empty net.
Incredibly the 10 men of Chelsea had done it. They had gained revenge for 2009, reached only their second Champions League Final, but most importantly, they made Gary Neville orgasm on live television.
By the time of the final on May 19th, The Blues had won the FA Cup, but finished a disappointing sixth in the Premier League.
That meant that Chelsea had to win the Champions League to qualify for the following season’s edition. They also had to do it without John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles and at the home of their opponents.
Their opponents were Bayern Munich. The Germans had defeated Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the semi-final and were looking to win their first European Cup since 2001, on their home turf.
The Bavarians were also depleted by suspensions. Defenders David Alaba and Holger Badstuber missed out because of semi-final yellow cards along with Brazilian midfielder Luiz Gustavo.
Bayern lined up with Manuel Neuer in goal, Philip Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Anatoliy Tymoschuk (usually a defensive midfielder) and Diego Contento in defence, Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Franck Ribery in midfield, with Mario Gomez up top.
Chelsea fielded an expected line up, but with one major surprise. Young left back Ryan Bertrand was thrust in at the very deep end, starting at left midfield ahead of Florent Malouda. Elsewhere, Petr Cech, Jose Bosingwa, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ashley Cole, John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Salomon Kalou, Juan Mata and Didier Drogba completed the XI.
The game unfolded in much the same way to Chelsea’s two legs against Barcelona. Bayern were much the better side in possession, but a combination of heroic defending and dreadful finishing from Mario Gomez meant that Chelsea remained level.
The game was tense but not without chances, though it lacked the urgency showed in the semi-finals, with both sides understandably cagey. Franck Ribery thought he had scored in the second half, but as in the semi-final a linesman’s flag came to Chelsea’s rescue.
But it lit up in the final 10 minutes. Toni Kroos picked up the ball on the left-hand side, looked up and noticed an overload at the back post. The brilliant Ashley Cole blocked off Mario Gomez but failed to see Thomas Muller lurking behind him.
The Germany international headed down into the ground, with the ball bouncing up over Petr Cech and in off the bar. With seven minutes to play, Chelsea were once again staring into the abyss.
The blues were not lacking in effort but now needed a miracle, Bayern still running rings around them in possession. With two minutes to go, substitute Fernando Torres scrappily won Chelsea’s first corner of the game.
Juan Mata curled it in to the near post, Didier Drogba climbed high and flicked towards Manuel Neuer’s near post. The big German could only palm it into the roof of the net and Chelsea had “pulled the rabbit out of the hat again” as Martin Tyler famously said to the tune of another Gary Neville orgasm.
Extra time commenced, Chelsea settled again. After just a few minutes, déjà vu from the semi-final struck as Ivorian hero Didier Drogba brought down Franck Ribery, for a Bayern penalty.
Former Chelsea man Arjen Robben was charged with taking it. Unlike Messi, the Dutchman hit the target. Unfortunately for him, Petr Cech guessed correctly and stopped it.
It was beyond belief how Chelsea were still level. Ivica Olic and Daniel van Buyten painfully miscommunicated to mess up what looked a certain goal, and extra-time petered out.
For the tenth time, the European Cup would be decided by a penalty shootout. Bayern went first.
Philip Lahm stroked home despite a hand from Petr Cech. 1-0.
Juan Mata hit low to Neuer’s left but saw it saved. 1-0.
Mario Gomez low and into the bottom corner. 2-0.
David Luiz high into the top right. 2-1.
Manuel Neuer stepped up and beat Petr Cech. 3-1.
Frank Lampard smashed into the roof of the net. 3-2.
Ivica Olic hit a very similar penalty to Juan Mata, with the same result. 3-2.
Ashley Cole feigned left but went right, the scores were level after four each. 3-3.
Bastian Schweinsteiger hits low to Cech’s left. A fingertip turns it onto the post and away. Match point Chelsea.
Didier Drogba walked forward. He was expected to leave Chelsea at the end of the season. This would likely be his last kick of a ball in the blue of a Chelsea shirt, and that kick could win the Champions League.
Of course he did it.
The Blues had avenged their penalty defeat in the final four years earlier and given owner Roman Abramovich what he craved so deeply. Chelsea had won their first ever European Cup.
Missing captain John Terry joined his side on the pitch to lift the trophy in full kit, and became a meme.
The triumph meant Chelsea would play in the Champions League again next season, though they ended up becoming the first winners to exit at the Group Stage just months later, before they went on to win the Europa League.
In taking the fourth English spot in the Champions League, Chelsea enjoyed the extra pleasure of demoting London rivals Tottenham to the Europa League.
Roberto Di Matteo was appointed manager on a full-time basis shortly after, but lasted only until November. Didier Drogba left the club to join Shanghai Shenhua when his contract expired. It would not be his final game in Chelsea colours however, as he made a remarkable return two years later.
Many fans consider Liverpool’s 2005 triumph to be the greatest final of all-time. This victory in 2012 is surely the greatest story of all-time.
Overcoming a 3-1 first leg defeat in the round of 16, knocking out the defending Champions and favourites for the title with 10 men in the Nou Camp and finally digging deeper than any side has before to come back from the brink once again in the final.
It may never be seen again that a side can be outplayed on so many occasions yet win the Champions League. As Fernando Torres said between the two legs of the semi-final, “the best team does not always win”.