Drogba, Zola, Gullit and Chelsea's 25 Greatest Foreign Imports

Garry Hayes@@garryhayesFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2014

Drogba, Zola, Gullit and Chelsea's 25 Greatest Foreign Imports

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    Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

    Nils Middelboe was the first and there have been countless others ever since at Chelsea.

    A midfielder hailing from Denmark, Middelboe joined the Blues in 1913, becoming the club's inaugural overseas player and thus setting a precedent that has served Chelsea well in the 101 years since.

    He made 46 appearances during his eight years at Stamford Bridge, and while his impact may not have matched that of his fellow foreign Blues down the years, his place in history is secure.

    Football has become a global game in the modern era and is far from the days when Middelboe turned out in West London; it's now the norm for clubs to feature a cosmopolitan lineup.

    Indeed, Chelsea themselves became the first-ever club in English football to field a team made up entirely of foreign players in a Boxing Day fixture against Southampton in 1999, while others have since followed suit.

    A proud record or a damning indictment of English football? It depends what side of the fence you sit, but needless to say, without their overseas stars, Chelsea's history would read much different to the one we know.

    The famous stars to have donned Chelsea blue is an impressive list of talent, featuring World Cup winners and some of the biggest names to have graced the European stage.

    To celebrate their influence at Stamford Bridge, we count down Chelsea's top 25 foreign imports.

25. Nicolas Anelka

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    A £15 million capture from Bolton Wanderers in 2008, Nicolas Anelka's Chelsea career didn't quite get off to the start he would have liked, with him scoring just twice for the Blues in his first six months at Stamford Bridge.

    He would also go on to miss a penalty in the 2008 Champions League final shootout.

    Anelka finished the following campaign with 25 goals in all competitions, however, and ended the campaign with the Golden Boot for his 19 Premier League strikes.

    He was a vital component of the side as Didier Drogba suffered from injury problems, leaving Anelka as Chelsea's main striker for long spells of the campaign.

    The Blues finished the season as FA Cup winners, while the following year, with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, they went on to claim the double as Anelka hit 15 goals.

    His reputation has taken a knock in recent times on the back of his apparent quenelle gesture when celebrating a goal for West Bromwich Albion, but he remains fondly remembered at Stamford Bridge for everything he achieved.

24. Albert Ferrer

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    The Spanish right-back arrived from Barcelona in 1998 and was a significant coup for Chelsea.

    A Spain international, he had a considerable reputation and with his committed performances, it wasn't long before he had earned cult status among the Chelsea faithful.

    Ferrer was a quiet character away from the pitch, although he was a key member of the Chelsea team that qualified for the Champions League in his first season in West London.

    He played in 14 of Chelsea's 16 games in the 1999-00 Champions League, featuring in the memorable 3-1 victory over his former club Barcelona at Stamford Bridge.

23. Ramires

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    The Brazilian may not hit double figures with his goalscoring, but he has a knack for finding the back of the net at vital times.

    Take his goal against Barcelona in the 2012 Champions League semifinal, putting Chelsea back in control at the Nou Camp having trailed the home side 2-0 on the back of John Terry's red card.

    Ramires scored right on the half-time whistle, ensuring the pressure was heaped back onto Barca with the scores level at 2-2 on aggregate—the Blues leading on away goals.

    It's moments like that which have endeared Ramires to Chelsea fans. There will probably be more to follow in the coming years, which will see his position in lists such as this going only one way.

22. Arjen Robben

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    What has been Arjen Robben's biggest contribution to Chelsea's recent success? Probably missing that extra-time penalty for Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final.

    Aside from that, though, when he joined the Blues as a 20-year-old in 2004, he was a revelation. Partnering with Damien Duff on the flanks, he was simply irresistible at times, tormenting opponents and playing a big role in the Blues' title success.

    Rumors of squabbles in the dressing room and his injury problems eventually overshadowed Robben's final days at Stamford Bridge before he joined Real Madrid in 2007, but the Dutch ace's three years with Chelsea shouldn't be judged by how it all ended.

    He was a fine servant of the club.

21. Tore Andre Flo

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    Google "super sub" and the chances are Tore Andre Flo's name will appear high up in the search results.

    OK, that's probably embellishing things somewhat, but the term "super sub" would be the best way to describe Flo's Chelsea career.

    It's a compliment, but it can equally be taken as a form of underhand criticism as there was so much more to Flo's game than appearing from the bench to score goals.

    He had good feet for a big lad—another cliche often used to describe his prowess.

    At 6'4" he did tower over some of his opponents and was an effective player during his three seasons with Chelsea.

    He even scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur in December 1997, making Flo even more of a hero, but it was that super sub moniker that made the Norwegian stand out.

20. Eden Hazard

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    Eden Hazard doesn't have even two seasons in English football under his belt, and already there will be eyebrows raised at him appearing 20th in our list.

    He has been mesmerizing for Chelsea this term, building on an encouraging first year. There's still much more to achieve, though. He knows that and so too do Chelsea fans.

    Should he remain for a prolonged spell, Hazard will become a true Chelsea legend, whose name will not seem out of place among the likes of Peter Osgood, Ron Harris and George Hilsdon.

19. Dan Petrescu

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    Was he a right-back, a winger or playmaker?

    We're not quite sure, but what is certain is that Dan Petrescu was a fine player for Chelsea. The Romanian featured in one of the club's most successful periods and is one of their finest players, easily making it onto our list of the Blues' all-time foreign imports.

    He scored some majestic goals, earned some equally impressive assists and helped bring the glory days back to the King's Road.

18. Carlo Cudicini

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    Had it not been for the arrival of Petr Cech, Cudicini would have kept goal at Stamford Bridge for much longer than he did.

    The Italian joined from Serie C outfit Castel di Sangro in 1999, initially on loan, before making his move permanent the following year.

    He became a cult hero among supporters and even more so when he remained loyal to the cause, sticking with the Blues for five seasons as Cech's understudy, despite other clubs showing their interest.

    It says much for the esteem in which he is held that his move to rivals Tottenham Hotspur has done little to damage Cudicini's reputation, with the Italian remaining much-loved in West London.

17. Eidur Gudjohnsen

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    Before the likes of Didier Drogba arrived at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had a fearsome front line that saw them become a regular challenger for titles and other silverware.

    That partnership was between Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen, who terrorized defences and put Chelsea on the map in the early part of the new millennium.

    While Hasselbaink was more direct, his Icelandic strike partner had all the grace and skill of Europe's leading strikers, often performing the spectacular whenever finding the back of the net.

    That Gudjohnsen's partnership with Hasselbaink meant Gianfranco Zola was often forced into cameo roles in the latter stages of his Chelsea career says it all about Gudjohnsen.

16. Gus Poyet

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    Making waves as Sunderland manager, Gus Poyet did the same as a player for Chelsea.

    The Uruguayan was a real character, scoring goals as outlandish as his approach to the game.

    Ironically, it's probably this strike against his current employers that he is most fondly remembered for at Stamford Bridge, and it says much as to his talents as a player.

    He was loved by Blues fans, despite defecting to Tottenham Hotspur in 2001 when a certain Frank Lampard was signed as his replacement.

15. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

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    See No. 17 for the impact Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink made at Stamford Bridge, with his partnership alongside Eidur Gudjohnsen one of the finest Chelsea have seen in the club's 109-year history.

    He was known for being a greedy and ruthless player, but Hasselbaink more often than not backed it up with goals—and plenty of them.

    In his first season (2000-01) he notched up an incredible 27 goals in all competitions to make him the most prolific striker at Stamford Bridge since Kerry Dixon up to that point.

    He was a winner and there's nothing more that football fans like.

14. Branislav Ivanovic

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    Similar to Nicolas Anelka (No. 25), Branislav Ivanovic's first six months at Chelsea weren't exactly how he had planned.

    In fact, they were much worse than a disaster, with the Serbian not even featuring in the Chelsea team.

    He has made up for lost time, though, becoming a key player under successive managers since his January 2008 transfer from Lokomotiv Moscow.

    Centre-back, right-back—he's even a match winner, with his expertly executed strike against Manchester City recently giving the Blues the upper hand in the title race.

    Of all the goals he has scored, though, Chelsea fans will always remember his brace against Liverpool in the 2008-09 Champions League at Anfield to all but knock the Reds out of Europe.

13. Frank Leboeuf

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    Cultured defenders? They were a myth, a thing of fantasy at Chelsea until Frank Lebouef arrived in 1996.

    One of the first signings made by Ruud Gullit, the Frenchman slotted seamlessly into the Blues' rearguard. His presence was significant in Chelsea winning the FA Cup that season, and in many ways he helped lay the blueprint for what has followed.

    Ever since Lebouef's signing, Chelsea's back four has featured a player of his ilk, with Ricardo Carvalho, David Luiz and others all following his lead.

    That's a fine legacy.

12. Michael Ballack

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    A free transfer from Bayern Munich, Michael Ballack is among the finest midfielders to have graced Stamford Bridge.

    The German complemented the talents of Frank Lampard in the middle of the park, and while he may have been forced to adapt his game to suit football in England, there's no denying that he did so effectively, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup during his four years.

11. Michael Essien

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    When Claude Makelele departed Stamford Bridge in 2008, he left a considerable void that was always going to be difficult to fill.

    Michael Essien was busy doing just that, though, until injuries meant he never quite scaled the same heights as his predecessor.

    The Ghanaian was an exceptional talent, and he showed during the years he spent alongside Makelele at Chelsea that he was going to be among the best players of his generation.

    Athletic, powerful and a real presence in the middle of the park, Essien was labelled "The Bison" for a reason. Not much passed him and had his body not gave out, he would probably be a Stamford Bridge regular today.

10. Gianluca Vialli

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    An instant hero at Chelsea, Vialli helped bring silverware to Stamford Bridge first as a player, then from the dugout.

    He joined the club from European champions Juventus in 1996, and before he had even kicked a ball in anger, Blues fans were in awe, singing his name aloud and giving praise.

    In his debut season a memorable brace against Liverpool helped Chelsea come back from a two-goal deficit against Liverpool in the FA Cup to win the game 4-2—a result that was instrumental in the club going on to lift their first piece of silverware in 26 years.

    Just 12 months later, he was at it again, but this time as manager as Chelsea lifted the European Cup Winners' Cup and League Cup in 1998, Vialli now manager after Ruud Gullit's dismissal.

    He also won the FA Cup with the Blues in 2000.

9. Ricardo Carvalho

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    One of Jose Mourinho's first Chelsea signings in 2004, Ricardo Carvalho was a defender very much in the Frank Leboeuf mould, only more superior in his abilities to the Frenchman.

    He arrived from Porto and made an instant impact, striking up a strong defensive partnership with John Terry.

    The pair gave Chelsea the platform with which to build and were significant in the club lifting their first league title in 50 years in 2005, following it up with another Premier League crown just 12 months later.

    He made 210 appearances for the Blues before joining Real Madrid in 2010.

8. Juan Mata

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    He may have joined Manchester United for £37.1 million in January, but the scent of Juan Mata is still very much present at Stamford Bridge, as you would expect after the two-and-a-half years he spent in West London.

    Voted Chelsea's Player of the Year twice in a row, the Spaniard was magnificent.

    All good things must come to an end, or so the proverb reads, though, and with the return of Jose Mourinho last summer, it proved to be the case for Mata.

    A change of system and approach at Stamford Bridge meant Mata went from the fulcrum of Chelsea's attack to making brief cameos—all in the space of six months.

    In time his Chelsea career will not be defined by his final weeks, though. It will be moments like Munich when he provided the assist for Didier Drogba's late equalizer in the Champions League final, or his winner at Old Trafford last year to give Chelsea a much-needed win late in the season.

    Mata was a truly exceptional player for Chelsea.

7. Petr Cech

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    In his decade as a Chelsea player, Petr Cech has been breaking records regularly. These have included the most clean sheets in a row, fewest goals conceded in a season and longest minutes without a team scoring past him.

    He's made a mockery of the challenges that have been put before him.

    This season he got the one he has wanted all along, however—the highest number of clean sheets for any Chelsea goalkeeper, breaking Peter Bonetti's long-held record.

    For goalkeepers, it's a record just as important as a striker becoming the No. 1 goalscorer for his club. It outlines their loyalty, remaining long enough to break and set new records. Not only that, it shows their ability, and Cech has long demonstrated his talents between the sticks for Chelsea.

6. Marcel Desailly

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    Without Marcel Desailly, perhaps Chelsea wouldn't have John Terry.

    The former French international took the current captain under his wing during his time at Stamford Bridge, showing him what was required to reach the top and the direction in which he should take his career.

    JT listened and here he is, still leading Chelsea out every week aged 33.

    But that's not all Desailly's legacy represents at Chelsea. He arrived at a time when the Premier League was attracting big names, but big names who were deemed to be over the hill and sampling English football before they hung up their boots.

    Not Desailly.

    He was approaching his 30th birthday when he joined the Blues on the back of France's 1998 World Cup win. A Champions League winner with Marseille, he proved the naysayers wrong by becoming a rock at the back for Chelsea and having a considerable influence at the club.

    Age eventually caught up with him, but not before he had helped Chelsea build their future.

5. Claude Makelele

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    How many players have a position named after them? Not many, although Claude Makelele does.

    With teams now often deploying two defensive midfielders, the notion of the "Makelele Role" is somewhat redundant, yet such was his impact at Chelsea; the French midfielder helped change the way teams approached matches, with an emphasis on central midfield.

    It's no coincidence that Frank Lampard enjoyed some his best years with Makelele beside him in midfield, sitting deep to allow the action ahead of him to take shape.

    Makelele was a no frills type of player, always operating quietly and doing his bit for the team.

    With him, Chelsea looked unstoppable and it led to many clubs trying to replicate their successful formula. It worked to a certain point, but no matter the system they played, few could match the Blues in defensive midfield. Why? Because they were missing the vital piece to the jigsaw—Makelele.

4. Roberto Di Matteo

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    Gianluca Vialli made our top 10 on account of the trophies he brought to Chelsea as a player and then a manager.

    Well, Roberto Di Matteo didn't just match his compatriot's achievements—he obliterated them.

    An FA Cup winner, scoring the fastest-ever Wembley Cup final goal in 1997, Di Matteo also scored the last ever goal at the old stadium before it was redeveloped in 2000 when Chelsea claimed their third FA Cup.

    He also scored in the 1998 League Cup final and featured in Chelsea's 1-0 success over Stuttgart in the European Cup Winners' Cup final that same season.

    His Blues pedigree was significant from his playing days alone, yet nothing matches his achievements as manager.

    He was in charge for the best part of 10 months after Andre Villas-Boas was sacked in 2012, and in that time Di Matteo won the FA Cup and delivered the one trophy to have eluded the Blues—the Champions League.

    Things went sour a few months later when he himself was sacked, replaced by Rafa Benitez on an interim basis, but no matter how bad things may have got toward the end of his tenure, he departed with his legend even greater.

3. Gianfranco Zola

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    Any poll discussing Chelsea's greatest players will always have Gianfranco Zola ranked within the top few.

    The Italian was a magician, bringing a brand of football to West London not witnessed since the heady days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    He was a player of considerable talent—a player who made things happen, at times single handedly winning games and taking the club onto bigger and better things.

    Indeed, he was named the Footballer of the Year in just his first season—the same year Chelsea won the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough—and followed that success up with the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1998.

    That game was significant as Zola had been left on the bench by manager Gianluca Vialli, but with his introduction in the 70th minute, he scored the winning goal with his first touch.

    Whenever Zola featured in Chelsea colors, there was often a sense that something majestic would happen. More often than not, it did.

2. Didier Drogba

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    Didier Drogba's Chelsea career had been building up to this one moment—the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.

    It was his last game for the club, and the scene was set for the perfect fairy tale ending. Only Bayern had other ideas.

    Playing in their home stadium, the Germans dominated possession and looked the stronger team. When Thomas Muller scored in the 83rd minute, it seemed they would have their way, too, but they hadn't counted on Drogba.

    The Ivorian pulled Chelsea level with just two minutes to spare, and when the game remained at 1-1 in extra-time, the drama of penalties added to what had already been a nail-biting night even for neutrals.

    Chelsea needed to score their final spot kick to win the shootout, and who else but Drogba was down to take it. He was never going to miss, and there are few Chelsea players who will ever scale such heights for the club again.

1. Ruud Gullit

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    It was 17 years before Didier Drogba's winning penalty in the Champions League final that the wheels were set in motion for Chelsea to be crowned the continent's finest.

    In 1995, the Blues signed Ruud Gullit and the rest, as they say, is history.

    The Dutch ace tops our list of Chelsea's finest foreigners, not for what he did as a player or for winning the club's first trophy in 26 years, even.

    No, Gullit did something much more significant—he changed the entire philosophy and profile of Chelsea and almost two decades on, the club is still feeling the benefits.

    Then aged 33, Glenn Hoddle had signed him on a free transfer from Sampdoria, and when the Blues' manager left to take the England job 12 months later, it was Gullit whom Ken Bates appointed as his replacement.

    Suddenly Chelsea had their swagger back, with a swathe of glamorous signings joining the club. In came Gianluca Vialli, Frank Lebouef, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola.

    They were all players who would make a significant impact—indeed, all players who make this list, too—and were a sign of where the Blues were headed.

    Drogba may have scored that goal, Zola wooed the fans with his displays and Di Matteo delivered the Champions League as manager, but it was Gullit who started the revolution.

    Garry Hayes is Bleacher Report's lead Chelsea correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @garryhayes

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