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Chelsea: What went wrong the last time they looked to defend their Champions League crown?

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‘We don’t get anything from being champions, we start from zero,’ Cesar Azpilicueta insisted, all of his years of experience on display. It has not been the smoothest of roads for him, though, and he is wise enough not to take success for granted.

Chelsea are the Champions League holders and open their title defence this evening against Zenit St Petersburg. They are the overwhelming favourites to pick up a victory, but complacency has been a killer for them in the past. 

Indeed, Azpilicueta has tasted the agony and humiliation of an early knockout, having been in the team when the club followed up their superb 2012 success against Bayern Munich with a group stage exit.

Roberto Di Matteo was sacked by Chelsea after their Champions League group stage knockout

Roberto Di Matteo was sacked by Chelsea after their Champions League group stage knockout

Chelsea suffered a 3-0 defeat by Juventus, a result which had sent the holders crashing out

Chelsea suffered a 3-0 defeat by Juventus, a result which had sent the holders crashing out

‘I am the only one from that team in the squad,’ Azpilicueta added. ‘I will try to explain from this experience so it doesn’t happen again.’ His team-mates, still on a high from last term, would do well to heed his warning.

It was far from the fall of a giant, but Chelsea’s failure to progress from a group made of Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Nordsjaelland proved once again that in football, you cannot take anything for granted.

This is a mantra Thomas Tuchel, alongside his captain, Azpilicueta, will surely be instilling into his players before they step out at Stamford Bridge. He may even decide, in private or otherwise, to revisit those woes of 2012.

Thomas Tuchel won the same competition last season and will want to retain it this time round

Thomas Tuchel won the same competition last season and will want to retain it this time round

Cesar Azpilicueta (seen lifting the trophy) is the only player in the current squad from 2012

Cesar Azpilicueta (seen lifting the trophy) is the only player in the current squad from 2012

So how did their kingdom come crashing down all those years ago? As with any plummet back down to the cold, hard ground, it all started with a fairytale.

The man responsible for masterminding the Champions League glory, and then the one made to fell victim for the calamity that was hot on its heels, was Roberto Di Matteo, undoubtedly a club legend after his time on the pitch.

He was placed in charge as the manager on an interim basis until the end of the season after the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas. Having played for Chelsea between 1996-2002 and won several trophies, the appointment was popular.

And his impact was instant. Relatively fresh-faced, albeit with the pressures on the role slightly creasing his forehead, Di Matteo offered a fresh perspective, and managed to breathe new life into his players.

Di Matteo was handed the reins on a permanent basis after leading the club to European glory

Di Matteo was handed the reins on a permanent basis after leading the club to European glory

In the end, the club would finish five points adrift of the top four spots at the end of the campaign, a position which would have typically seen them miss out on the Champions League. But this was no ordinary caretaker stint.

Under Di Matteo, they secured a comeback victory over two legs against Napoli, dispatched Benfica and then Barcelona, and reached the final. There, they faced Bayern Munich, and the rest, after the penalty drama, is history.

Chelsea also lifted the FA Cup just a fortnight before their triumph in Munich, ensuring the perfect end to the season for their coach and his reinvigorated squad. The sky was the limit, but everything would go wrong in the months that followed. 

Azpilicueta arrived that summer, a low-key signing joining from Marseille in August and aged just 22. He would witness, first-hand, the dramatic rise and fall tale that football so often throws up, and even wore the armband.

Then the caretaker, Di Matteo guided Chelsea to a penalty shootout win over Bayern Munich

Then the caretaker, Di Matteo guided Chelsea to a penalty shootout win over Bayern Munich 

He was an unused substitute for the team’s Champions League opener the following season, a 2-2 home draw with Juventus. On paper, the result would have been far from the worst case scenario, but ultimately proved costly.

Oscar, who had joined Azpilicueta through the door in the same window, netted twice in the first half, and the atmosphere inside the ground in west London was euphoric. At least until the visitors’ pulsating comeback, that is. 

Juventus were unbeaten in 42 Serie A fixtures, and demonstrated all their pedigree and experience in Europe to take a point. Arturo Vidal halved the deficit before the break, and the leveller then came late on from Fabio Quagliarella. 

The slip-up marked only the second time that Chelsea had let a two-goal cushion lead in the competition slip away, and the ramifications of the dropped two points eventually saw Di Matteo, by then the permanent boss, axed.

Fabio Quagliarella tucked beyond Petr Cech to earn Juventus a share of the spoils at Chelsea

Fabio Quagliarella tucked beyond Petr Cech to earn Juventus a share of the spoils at Chelsea

On October 2, Chelsea then travelled to Denmark to play minnows Nordsjaelland. The scoreline, a 4-0 drubbing, flattered the visitors, in truth. The Danes even struck the woodwork, and threatened to earn a hard-fought point.

Juan Mata netted twice, with David Luiz scoring a free-kick and Ramires tapping in shortly before time to add gloss on the result for Di Matteo. His team lived dangerously at points, but eventually romped to a crucial win.

That saw them top of the group ahead of their rivals for the top two places, and marked a welcome success on the road, especially in light of their failure to win away from home in the group stage of the Champions League the season before.    

Towards the end of the month, Chelsea then took on Shakhtar Donetsk in another trip. In front of a baying crowd of just over 50,000 in Ukraine, they fell to a 2-1 defeat, despite an 89th-minute consolation from the in-form Oscar.

Shakhtar Donetsk, spearheaded by Willian, beat Chelsea to leave them teetering on the brink

Shakhtar Donetsk, spearheaded by Willian, beat Chelsea to leave them teetering on the brink

Alex Teixeira and Fernandinho, now at Manchester City, were both on target. Shakhtar dominated the clash, a fierce tussle between both teams, and could even have scored more if not for the heroics of goalkeeper Petr Cech.

For Di Matteo, this match inflicted a painful double on him. It was his first defeat in the competition, and also saw Chelsea’s hopes of defending their crown suffer a blow. Juventus’ failure to beat Nordsjaelland was their only saving grace.

From agony to ecstasy. That was the feeling that spread around a wild Stamford Bridge when Chelsea battled back from the brink to beat Shakhtar in a five-goal thriller, thanks to a 94th-minute winner from Victor Moses.

Without John Terry and Ashley Cole, Chelsea were made to work valiantly for the three points that saw them clinging on to second place in the group, and they also capitalised on two errors from goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov.

The mood at Stamford Bridge turned to esctasy when Victor Moses guided home a late winner

The mood at Stamford Bridge turned to esctasy when Victor Moses guided home a late winner

Moses was mobbed by his team-mates, having netted a goal which kept Chelsea's hopes alive

Moses was mobbed by his team-mates, having netted a goal which kept Chelsea’s hopes alive

Fernando Torres and Oscar found the net in the first half, before Willian, who would later go on to join Chelsea, equalised twice. That left the Blues staring down the barrel of the prospect of having to beat Juventus in Turin.

But Moses’ strike, which came after Shakhtar pressed forward in search of a winner of their own, saved the day for the home team. At that point, Juventus sat narrowly behind them with one point less, and were breathing down their neck.

And eventually, the pressure led to a collapse. Chelsea, in the formidable cauldron that is the Allianz Stadium, wilted under the spotlight, conceding three times and being left on the brink of an embarrassing knockout.

Quagliarella struck again in the reserve fixture, deflecting Andrea Pirlo’s effort beyond Cech, before Arturo Vidal netted on the hour mark. To add insult to injury, Sebastian Giovinco beat Cech to the ball to score from 30 yards. 

Captain John Terry returned midway through the campaign but Chelsea still were knocked out

Di Matteo put his head in his hands during Chelsea's chastening defeat in Turin, his last game in charge

John Terry (left) and Di Matteo (right) were unable to stop Chelsea from crashing out painfully

Di Matteo made the flight out facing fierce speculation over his future off the back of four Premier League matches without a win, and the manner of the loss, as well as its damaging fallout, saw Roman Abramovich choose to pull the trigger.

The permutations made for grim reading for Chelsea. Aware that even a victory in their final group game against Nordsjaelland may not have been enough, the storm clouds gathered. Their destiny was no longer in their own hands. 

And sure enough, the next day, the news was confirmed. 

Confirming Di Matteo’s dismissal just months into his permanent deal, a statement from Chelsea insisted that the ‘recent performances and results have not been good enough’. They also said that ‘the board felt a change was necessary now’.

Di Matteo was sacked the day after his team lost in Turin, just months into his permanent spell

Di Matteo was sacked the day after his team lost in Turin, just months into his permanent spell

Chelsea became the first Champions League holders to exit at the group stage of the tournament, too, and a new era under the tutelage of Rafael Benitez was ushered in. A divisive choice, it fell to him to keep the club on track.

In his defence, he could do no more himself. He led his team to a resounding 6-1 rout over Nordsjaelland to round off their campaign, but Juventus’ win against Shakhtar saw them crash out seven months after the trophy. 

Made to settle for third place, Chelsea dropped into the Europa League. Two months on, they began their mission to win that competition, and duly did so by beating Benfica in Amsterdam to clinch their own trophy of the season.

Along the way, they dealt with Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest, Rubin Kazan and Basel, and triumphed in the final after Branislav Ivanovic netted in the 93rd minute. That proved to be Benitez’s last game, before Jose Mourinho’s return.

Rafael Benitez replaced Di Matteo as the interim boss and went on to lift the Europe League

Rafael Benitez replaced Di Matteo as the interim boss and went on to lift the Europe League

A rollercoaster ride, then, and one Azpilicueta, sitting in his chair during the press conference, seems determined to avoid a repeat of. This team feel and look different, they are a winning machine, but stranger upsets have happened.

On his part, he has seen seven changes of manager altogether at Chelsea, although Tuchel’s job is more than safe after his exploits so far. He will want to retain their title, and also lay down a stylish early marker against Zenit St Petersburg. 

Superstitious or not, he will also be aware that Juventus are in Chelsea’s group this season, but must have full confidence that his players are real challengers again. 



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