Two terrible mistakes by their World Cup-winning central defence, and another match of missed chances in attack, meant the London club became the first English team to lose in Berlin's Olympic Stadium.
"Physically, mentally and tactically we were poor," said a dejected Gianluca Vialli, adding, "I accept responsibility for that. I buy the players, I train the team, I pick the team.
"We were too confused and too bad to be true in the first half. The way we started made it difficult for ourselves."
Too true, Chelsea started with a shocking lapse after two minutes which allowed Ali Daei to score and committed another after 70 which enabled the Iranian striker to secure Hertha Berlin's first win for more than a month. "It was a victory for teamwork," Jurgen Rober, their manager, said.
Chelsea, who were given brief but unfulfilled hope by Franck Leboeuf's 85th-minute penalty, are now three points adrift of Hertha Berlin and Milan, who beat Galatasaray 2-1 last night in the other Champions' League Group H game. They meet the Turkish champions at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday in a match they must win to revive their qualifying hopes.
Vialli, whose miserable night was completed by bookings for Marcel Desailly, Dennis Wise and Celestine Babayaro, added: "I know from now on it will be difficult to qualify but we probably need difficulties to get the best out of us and I'm sure we will now see a reaction."
The Chelsea manager, who has now seen his team score just once from open play in the last six matches, is still unsure of his best striking combination. He began last night with Tore Andre Flo partnering Gianfranco Zola and ended with Chris Sutton - the last Chelsea striker to score, on 11 August - alongside the Sardinian.
Zola began brightly with his second-minute shot, well held by Gabor Kiraly, suggesting a fruitful evening. This promise soon dissipated as they were caught out by a cross-field ball to Anthony Sanneh on the left.
With Albert Ferrer isolated and wary of diving in, the American was able to move the ball to his favoured right foot. Unlike Desailly and Leboeuf he had spotted Daei on the edge of the box and the Iranian was able to rise unchallenged between the Frenchmen to head his cross inside the near post. A terrible, lazy goal to give away, indicative of sloppy concentration and over-confidence.
It was the worst possible start, especially as Hertha had planned on playing a counter-attacking game. A stunned Chelsea took time to recover their poise and both Ferrer and Leboeuf could have been booked for rash challenges while Dariusz Wosz was allowed to shoot just over from 20 yards.
Slowly, the visitors began to take control but their passing lacked its customary zip and, too often, moves broke down. Only in the closing minutes of the half did Flo, running on to a long ball, manage a shot but he was wide of the near post.
In the meantime Chelsea had allowed another free header, Michael Preetz getting between Leboeuf and Le Saux to meet Daei's cross. To Chelsea's relief, last year's Bundesliga top scorer headed wide.
Chelsea re-emerged with fresh vigour and quickly created a string of chances. After 50 minutes Zola, turning onto a Ferrer pass, brought a good save from Kiraly then Babayaro, set up by Wise and Dan Petrescu, shot into the side netting. Zola was similarly profligate after good work by Wise and Babayaro before Flo, bursting on to Babayaro's pass, saw Kiraly make a smart reaction save with his foot.
The Norwegian was again denied after 56 minutes when he shot too close to the goalkeeper and, seven minutes later, was replaced by Sutton as Vialli sought a new way to open Berlin's wall of defenders. Gabriele Ambrosetti also came on to provide the ammunition.
All the time Chelsea had to beware the counter-attack and, after 68 minutes, only the alertness of Petrescu prevented Wosz setting up Sebastian Deisler following one 60-yard break.
Two minutes later, however, Chelsea's defensive concentration again slipped as Leboeuf failed to control a square pass from Desailly. Daei stole the ball away and rolled it past Ed De Goey to score off the inside of the near post.
The game seemed gone and the ironic strains of "Football's Coming Home" began wafting from the terraces. Then Dick van Burik brought down Sutton in the box and Leboeuf gave Chelsea hope with a successful penalty.
With Berlin - who had conceded a two-goal lead against Galatasaray in Turkey last week - rattled, Chelsea mounted a desperate late assault. This time however, despite four minutes of added time, the Germans held on.
Hertha Berlin (3-5-2): Kiraly; Schmidt, Van Burik, Herzog; Deisler, Dardai (Helmer, 79), Wosz, Tretschok (Michalke, 12), Sanneh; Daei, Preetz. Substitutes not used: Fiedler, Roy, Veit, Reiss, Aracic.
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Ferrer (Ambrosetti, 63), Leboeuf, Desailly, Le Saux (Morris, 71); Petrescu, Wise, Deschamps, Babayaro; Zola, Flo (Sutton, 63). Substitutes not used: Cudicini, Hogh, Lambourde, Forssell.
Referee: M Piraux (Belgium).Reuse content