Fans may object, but it’s difficult not to think of Chelsea in terms of before and after Roman Abramovich.
Before the Russian billionaire invested his wealth, the West London club boasted one top-flight league title (1954/55).
Under Abramovich’s ownership, the Blues have won five Premier League titles.
The catalyst for this paradigm shift is said to have occurred at approximately 3:26pm on 11th May 2003.
In our third edition of HISTORY LESSONS, we’ll review whether or not this is actually true…
Why this game?
On the final day of the 2002/03 Premier League season, Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool travelled to Stamford Bridge in hopes of pipping their opponents to the final Champions League spot.
The media hyped it up as ‘The £20million game’ because of the financial rewards at stake.
The moniker would prove to be conservative in the extreme — a more fitting title would have been: The £1billion game…
The visitors got off to the perfect start when Sami Hyypia headed Danny Murphy’s free-kick past Carlo Cudicini at the back post in the 11th minute.
Cue rampaging celebrations in the away end.
However, the Scouse frenzy had barely ended when Marcel Desailly directed a header of his own into the bottom corner — Chelsea’s captain matching Liverpool’s in the manner of an unflappable poker player.
Then, the defining moment.
Jesper Gronkjaer collected the ball at the corner of the box before wriggling past John Arne Riise.
The Danish winger curled his shot past the wild two-footed lunge of Djimi Traore and wheeled away as it nestled in the same corner Desailly had primed.
And that was it; immortality.
Liverpool grew frustrated as Chelsea closed out the game, none more so than Steven Gerrard who was shown a red card for the kind of tackle that requires age verification.
Stamford Bridge erupted as referee Alan Wiley blew the whistle to confirm Chelsea’s Champions League qualification.
Prior to the game, the players were motivated by chief executive Trevor Birch, who told them the club’s finances were creaking and failure would prompt drastic cost-cutting.
In footballing terms, Chelsea were on the brink of ‘doing a Leeds’.
Victory over Liverpool not only shuffled them away from the lip of oblivion, it catapulted them to unfathomable wealth.
The Blues’ Champions League qualification persuaded Abramovich to invest.
If rumours are to be believed, the aesthetic of Tottenham High Road was also a factor as Abramovich was supposedly turned off the idea of buying Spurs when a short drive around the area led an unfavourable comparison between North London and the remote Siberian city of Omsk.
And so the big names paraded to West London: Hernan Crespo, Joe Cole, Claude Makelele, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack, Andriy Shevchenko, Ashley Cole, Deco, Fernando Torres, David Luiz (twice), Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas, Diego Costa, Pedro, N’Golo Kante, and many, many more.
The revolving door of talent and high-profile managers has seemed chaotic at times, but ultimately it’s been a period of immense success.
With every trophy added, fans herald Gronkjaer’s contribution, aware of Chelsea’s Sliding Doors alternative had he skewed his shot wide.
Except, actually, had his shot dribbled into the corner flag instead of the bottom corner, Chelsea would still be a powerhouse.
Those who have long dubbed Gronkjaer’s winner the decisive strike overlook the basic dynamics of that fateful day in 2003.
Chelsea and Liverpool started the day level on 64 points, but it was the Blues who occupied fourth place by virtue of a superior goal difference.
Claudio Ranieri’s men only needed a draw to secure their glorious future.
Technically, Desailly’s equaliser was the £1billion goal, not Gronkjaer’s winner.
You could argue the Frenchman is a more fitting hero.
The two-time Champions League winner was the leadership figure at Stamford Bridge before John Terry became emblematic of the Abramovich era.
And on the day of the pivotal Liverpool game, Desailly’s defensive resoluteness was just as vital as his goal.
The Guardian’s match report from the time explains he ‘played through back pain and was refused permission to come off’ such was his importance.
In contrast, Gronkjaer was described as ‘peripheral’ on commentary literally a second before his goal.
But hang on, let’s not strip the Dane of his dues entirely.
It was Gronkjaer’s cross that sought out Desailly for the first goal and, regardless of his effectiveness in the rest of the match, a goal and an assist in a clutch fixture is worthy of significant praise.
We know what happened to Chelsea as a result, but what about the Premier League?
Prior to the Blues’ record-breaking title win in 2004/05, England’s top flight was dominated by a duopoly.
Man United (six) and Arsenal (three) won nine titles in as many seasons to leave the Prem relatively noncompetitive in the view of many.
Chelsea’s emergence may have angered traditionalists who thought they ‘bought success’ but there’s no doubt the league benefited (in terms of entertainment) from a team capable of bettering United and Arsenal.
Man City’s takeover followed the Chelsea blueprint and injected yet more competitiveness at the top end, cementing the Prem’s status as the world’s most-watched league.
It’s closest competitor, La Liga, suffers because of the perceived lack of competitiveness caused by Barcelona and Real Madrid’s sustained duopoly — one similar to the United and Arsenal reign that Chelsea broke up thanks to Desailly, Gronkjaer and co.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say the Premier League’s sacred status (not to mention Chelsea’s modern identity) owes a lot to a goal that has largely been forgotten.
“And a header… into the corner of the net! It’s Marcel Desailly!”
READ MORE FROM OUR HISTORY LESSONS SERIES:
- How Jose Mourinho’s ‘most beautiful defeat’ shaped modern football
- The 0-0 draw that birthed a generation-defining reign of international football