The Spanish side conceded only six goals in their opening 15 League games this season, a record which took them to the top of the table, and despite slipping to sixth place, their current goals-against record of 21 in 28 games is better than Barcelona, Real Madrid or anyone else. In reaching the last four in their first season of European competition (earned by losing the Spanish Cup final on penalties to Barcelona), they have conceded only three goals in their six matches against Hearts, Genk of Belgium and the Croatian side Varteks.
The goalkeeper who is so difficult to beat - even from the penalty spot, as Paul Ince and David Batty will confirm - is Argentina's Carlos Roa, who denied England on that steamy night in St Etienne last June. Like Glenn Hoddle, he has courted controversy for his religious beliefs, having become a Seventh-Day Adventist, and says he may have to retire rather than play on Saturdays.
Thursdays are not a problem, however, so this evening he will take his place behind a formidable back four. Roa is one of several Argentinians in the squad, recruited by their fellow-countryman Hector Cuper, who has won an impressive reputation since arriving on the holiday island as a virtually unknown coach. Jovan Stankovic, the Yugoslav, has not been playing out of deference to his national association and is, in any case, suspended. Dani, once of Real Madrid, is the principal striker, though the team do not score many more goals than they concede.
In the first round of the competition they were accused by Hearts of moving the goalposts - or, more precisely, having one 6in shorter than the other because of a ridge in the pitch. Real won 1-0 at Tynecastle, then held on for a 1-1 draw at their own rather outdated stadium to frustrate the Edinburgh club, whose manager, Jim Jefferies, said yesterday: "They were very sound defensively and comfortable on the ball. What they didn't like was aerial attack. We'd heard they were a good side and probably paid them too much respect. The keeper is a bit eccentric - he's very easy to upset and should have been sent off against us when he retaliated to a challenge. I think Chelsea will be too good for them, but it won't be easy."
The view inside the Chelsea camp is similar and will not be altered by yesterday's bold claim from Cuper that his side are favourites to win the tie. "They are a very good team," said Albert Ferrer, the former Barcelona man who has been outstanding at right-back for Chelsea this season. "They don't have any superstars, but have a lot of discipline and counter-attack well."
The other Chelsea player with recent experience of Spanish football is Gustavo Poyet, who is on course to win the Cup-Winners' Cup for a third time in five seasons. He joined the London club after helping to knock them out of the 1995 semi-final with Zaragoza, before playing his part in last season's success as an influential goalscoring midfielder.
The Uruguayan was the club's leading scorer when he suffered a bad knee injury at Southampton on Boxing Day and, three months later, his tally has only just been overtaken by Gianfranco Zola. Brought back for 20 minutes of the victory at Charlton on Saturday, he admits he would find it difficult to play a full game tonight, so Chelsea must hope that Celestine Babayaro is fully recovered.
Gianluca Vialli is likely to pick himself, as he has done for four of the six European matches this season, which will leave Ray Wilkins in charge on the touchline. Wilkins, a Chelsea club captain at 17 in more hirsute days, has a contract as coach until Graham Rix is released from prison in the summer.
Although it will be his first involvement in a European tie since playing for Rangers in a European Cup quarter-final 11 years ago, he knows the rules have not changed. "It's vitally important when you play at home first to chalk up the biggest advantage you can get to take away to any foreign country. A victory and a clean sheet would be ideal," he said.
Appealing to the current Chelsea team to take revenge on Roa for England's sake would probably not have much effect, but they should eventually achieve it anyway.
CHELSEA (probable): De Goey; Ferrer, Leboeuf, Desailly, Le Saux; Petrescu, Di Matteo, Wise, Babayaro; Vialli, Zola.Reuse content