It was hardly surprising that Marco Ambrosio arrived here yesterday to be greeted by L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper, asking: "Who's Ambrosio?" Plenty of English and Italian football supporters still do the same.
For the Italians discovering Ambrosio keeping goal for Chelsea in tonight's Champions' League semi-final against Monaco it is the equivalent of English followers finding Kevin Poole, Bolton Wanderers' reserve goalkeeper, doing the same for Internazionale. After years of bench-warming for middle-ranking domestic teams the perennial reserve turns up playing for a free-spending foreign powerhouse.
Ambrosio admits that even he feels "it is like a dream". Speaking on the flight to the Principality he added: "I couldn't have imagined I would be on the pitch for the semi-final of the Champions' League."
Even when he signed for Chelsea last summer Ambrosio, married with a baby, could not reasonably have harboured such an ambition. He was hired as third choice behind Carlo Cudicini and Jurgen Macho. This was fine by him. At 30 he had spent his career understudying others.
He had played in Serie C, Italy's part-time regionalised third tier, with Prato, Ravenna and Lucchese, Serie B with Pisa and, for a heady 10 games at each club, Serie A with Samp-doria and Chievo. His last outing had been for Chievo, a 4-0 defeat by Juventus. As one Chelsea informant said yesterday: "We signed him because he was cheap and on a free transfer. Remember, he arrived before Roman Abramovich took over."
When Macho injured his knee Ambrosio became No 2 but was so unconvincing on his debut, conceding two goals to Notts County in the Carling Cup in October, Claudio Ranieri signed Neil Sullivan in the transfer window. Then Cudicini broke a finger and Sullivan injured his thigh. On 13 March, at Bolton, Ambrosio was given a second chance.
"I slept very badly before the game," he recalled. "Apart from Notts County I had not played all season, not even in the reserves. The first match you do not have confidence with the pitch, with your team-mates, with the emotion of the match. Now every match is better." Ambrosio kept a clean sheet and retained his place when Sullivan returned to fitness.
He was thus in goal when Chelsea won at Arsenal in the Champions' League quarter-final. "It was a fantastic night for me," he said. "The best night of my career. I have taken my shirt and put it on the wall of my house in Italy because I can't forget this match.
"Before the game I was nervous because I knew this 90 minutes could decide my future. For me it was very important because I want to stay here at Chelsea. I wanted to show my team-mates, the fans and the manager that I was worthy of the Chelsea jersey.
"After the final whistle we were crazy, crazy, crazy. We were like men who had been let out of prison after five years. Arsenal had been a nightmare. It was like K2, a big mountain. Now we have a lot of confidence in our ability."
With Milan and Juventus eliminated Ambrosio is one of only three Italians left in the competition. The others are Ranieri and Monaco goalkeeper, Flavio Roma.
"In Italy there is a lot of attention on me and Roma," said Ambrosio, clearly surprised and delighted at the thought. "Because there is not an Italian team in the competition we are representing Italians."
Roma's story is similar to Ambrosio's. He played in Serie A with Piacenza but spent most of his career in the lower divisions with them, Mantova, Chievo, Foggia and Venezia. Like Ambrosio he was signed as an understudy but has forced his way past Stéphane Porato, a French International, and is now also keeping out Senegal's World Cup goalkeeper Tony Mario Sylva. Now 29, he was watched by Arsenal last season, and by Giovanni Trappatoni.
However well he performs tonight Ambrosio is unlikely to attract the Italian coach's attention. He knows his place and expects to be dropped when Cudicini recovers. "It is normal, he is Chelsea's goalkeeper," Ambrosio said.
He may be back to third choice next season as Chelsea have already signed, for £7m, Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech. "That's also normal," he said, "the boss wants the best for Chelsea." In a boast he added: "He is trying to build a big team and it is normal to start with a big goalkeeper - but I don't know if he now has one big keeper, or two or three?"
For now Ambrosio is thinking only of tonight. "I must find the right concentration for this match. Carlo helps me a lot and he's told me I must be calm. That is important. If you try to do something special to show you are best, to do something more, that is when you make a mistake."
Chelsea have faced French opposition once in Europe - Marseilles in the second group stage of the Champions' League in 1999-2000, writes Nick Harris. They lost the first leg away 1-0 to a Robert Pires goal, won the second leg 1-0 thanks to a Dennis Wise goal and went on to lose the quarter-final 6-4 on aggregate to Barcelona. Monaco have faced three English sides in Europe, losing to Leeds and beating Newcastle in the Uefa Cups of 1995-96 and 1996-97 respectively. They have met one English team in Europe's major competition - Manchester United, in the 1997-98 Champions' League quarter-final, when a 0-0 home draw was followed by a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.
Anglo-French meetings in the European Cup/Champions' League:
Burnley 2 Stade Reims 0; Reims 3 Burnley 2
Fate of winner: Burnley lost QF 5-4 on agg to SV Hamburg
St Etienne 1 Liverpool 0; Liverpool 3 St Etienne 1
Liverpool bt Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-1 in the final
1997-98 (CL QF)
Monaco 0 Man Utd 0; Man U 1 Monaco 1
Monaco lost SF 6-4 on agg to Juventus
1998-99 (CL 1st Group stage)
Lens 1 Arsenal 1; Arsenal 0 Lens 1
1999-00 (CL 1st Gp stage)
Man Utd 2 Marseilles 1; Marseilles 0 Man U 1
1999-00 (CL 2nd Gp stage)
Man U 2 Bordeaux 0; Bordeaux 1 Man U 2
1999-00 (CL 2nd Gp stage)
Marseilles 1 Chelsea 0; Chelsea 1 Marseilles 0
2000-01 (CL 2nd Gp stage)
Lyon 0 Arsenal 1; Arsenal 1 Lyon 0
2001-02 (CL 1st GP stage)
Man Utd 1 Lille 0; Lille 1 Man Utd 1
2001-02 (CL 2nd Gp stage)
Nantes 1 Man Utd 1; Man Utd 5 Nantes 1
2002-03 (CL 1st Gp stage)
Auxerre 0 Arsenal 1; Arsenal 1 Auxerre 2.