'Seven minutes away' - When Chelsea almost upset Barcelona in 2000
LONDON - "Barcelona, we're coming for you," has become a familiar refrain from the stands at Chelsea matches in recent weeks. The tone was ironic at Vicarage Road as Watford embarrassed the Premier League champions in a 4-1 defeat, but it came out rather more defiant in Friday's 4-0 win over Hull City in the FA Cup.
If the optimism sounds misplaced, it is worth remembering that Tuesday brings the renewal of one of the great Champions League rivalries. Chelsea and Barcelona have battled 12 times in Europe's elite club competition, contested five knockout ties and every meeting has yielded drama as well as controversy.
Over the years Chelsea have embraced their role as Barcelona's bête noire, successfully derailing their heavily-fancied opponents in 2005 and 2012. At other times they have been a reluctant bellwether; hard-fought wins over the Blues in 2006 and 2009 propelled the Catalan giants towards European glory.
Even in victory, Barcelona have never been comfortable enough to feel that they have truly got the measure of Chelsea, and it is this history that Antonio Conte will lean on when the teams meet on Tuesday. The Italian believes that his team need to play "the perfect game" but the scars inflicted by both sides creates a tension that is unmatched between two elite clubs from different countries.
"This is a derby, a Clasico, as much as playing Real Madrid is," Andres Iniesta said of facing Chelsea in April 2009, before scoring an injury-time goal at Stamford Bridge to send Barcelona into the Champions League final on a night to forget for referee Tom Henning Ovrebo.
Jose Mourinho was the architect of much of the acrimony that endures to this day -- as Frank Rijkaard and Anders Frisk will attest -- but the tone for the remarkably balanced rivalry that followed was actually set before he or Roman Abramovich ever arrived at Stamford Bridge, in April 2000.
Chelsea, not yet bankrolled by the billionaire benefactor, were a feel-good story in their first Champions League campaign and heavy underdogs in the 1999-00 quarterfinals against Louis van Gaal's Barcelona, reigning champions of Spain and widely regarded as the most talented team in Europe.
The Catalan giants boasted Rivaldo, Luis Figo, Xavi and Patrick Kluivert within their ranks but, not for the last time, found themselves stunned at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea kept the visitors at bay for much of the first half before striking three times in the space of eight minutes.
Gianfranco Zola was the catalyst, bending a trademark free kick in at the near post before darting into the right channel and crossing low for Tore Andre Flo to double Chelsea's advantage. Flo then raced in behind a reeling Barcelona defence to loft the ball over goalkeeper Ruud Hesp and give the Blues a 3-0 lead at half-time.
"I have never felt an atmosphere like that at Stamford Bridge," Flo told ESPN FC as part of a Chelsea Legends team that will take on Inter Forever at Stamford Bridge on May 18. "It felt really electrical to walk into the dressing room and it felt like they couldn't believe that we were beating Barcelona 3-0 in the Champions League quarterfinal."
Not even Figo's 64th-minute intervention, turning in Phillip Cocu's low cross to net Barcelona a vital away goal, could spoil one of the great Stamford Bridge nights or the optimism that Chelsea's grand adventure could survive Camp Nou.
"At the final whistle, to walk in and hear the crowd going that crazy, is one of the most special moments that I have had as a player," Flo added.
A fortnight later the reality check was agonising. Rivaldo's deflected free kick and another Figo strike but Barcelona in charge, but Flo pounced upon Hesp's mistake to secure Chelsea an away goal on the hour mark. A famous upset appeared to be on until Dani headed in Pep Guardiola's free kick on 83 minutes to send the tie into extra-time. "We were seven minutes away," Flo remembered wistfully.
Rivaldo's penalty and a Kluivert header gave Barcelona a 5-1 victory on the night and a 6-4 win on aggregate after 120 minutes of play, but Chelsea's spirited resistance as heavy underdogs in both games provided a taste of what was to come once Abramovich's billions elevated the club to an equal footing.
Barcelona are favoured again this time around. They have lost just once in 38 matches in all competitions since August and lead La Liga by seven points. Chelsea, meanwhile, remain at a low ebb despite beating West Brom and Hull recently, and face a fight to finish in the Premier League's top four.
Lionel Messi is in imperious form, with 26 goals and 12 assists in 33 Barcelona appearances, and no one expects his bizarre scoring drought against Chelsea -- no goals from 29 shots in eight Champions League games -- to continue.
With the second leg at Camp Nou as in 2000, Chelsea likely need another big Stamford Bridge night in order to progress.
"If they get a 3-1 lead like we did I am sure they will be very happy," Flo added with a smile. "But still even a draw [would be ok], because it is so tight nowadays."
Whatever the result on Tuesday, the history of Chelsea against Barcelona suggests there will be more than a few twists and turns along the way.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.