Gianluca Vialli: The Italian Icon Who Instigated a New Era at Chelsea

Some signings can signal the start of a new era for a football club.

Chelsea, while successful in the past, truly began emerging as an English football heavyweight at the end of the 1990s. Coincidentally, just at the time when Ginaluca Vialli made the move to west London.

UC Sampdoria v Bologna FC - Serie A
Vialli remains a Sampdoria legend | Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

Born in the northern Italian city of Cremona, Vialli quickly established himself in his local side's team in the the early 80s. A striker with the ability to play across a number of positions, his ability was far beyond the level of Serie B, thus a move to a more established club, such as Sampdoria, was inevitable.

A country littered with legendary strikers was soon to get itself another as Vialli struck up a formidable partnership with none other than Roberto Mancini. The pair worked in perfect harmony together, fronting one of the most successful periods in the club's history; the crowning glory of which would come in the 1990/91 season.

Vialli top scored in the league with 19 goals as Sampdoria won their first ever Serie A title. His flamboyant and energetic playing style was perfectly encapsulated in his backflip goal celebrations. Defeat in the European Cup final the following season would be Vialli's final involvement at the club, but not without leaving a long-lasting legacy. 141 goals in 327 matches, and six titles, to be exact.

Moving to Juventus to play alongside some of world football's biggest names, the Italian continued to act as the perfect accompaniment to whoever he played alongside. A leader on and off the pitch, his workmanlike approach and total commitment resulted in further on-field success. Operating across the front line in Turin, a keen eye for the spectacular saw him score a variety of acrobatic goals.

Franco Baresi, Gianluca Vialli
Vialli perfectly balanced class with pure grit | Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Someone who balanced class and grit in equal measures was sure to win over supporters in no time. Scudetti, Coppa Italia's and Supercoppa Italiana's helped, too. Yet his crowning achievement would come in 1996 where he captained I Bianconeri to Champions League glory against Ajax. Juve's outrageously good front line was spearheaded by Vialli, who would play his final match for the club that night.

Ruud Gullit had taken over the Chelsea post following his own move from Italy, assuming player-manager duties in 1996. His first port of call was to bring Vialli to Stamford Bridge on a free transfer.

It's fair to say the pair never quite saw eye to eye, but the Italian still made a vital imprint on the club as they lifted the FA Cup in his first season - their first major silverware in 26 years. Said disagreement transferred over into the following campaign, yet it was Gullit who suffered most as he was relieved of his duties as player-manager.

Up stepped Vialli.

Gianluca Vialli
Gianluca Vialli became Chelsea player manager after Gullit's sacking | Ben Radford/Getty Images

At the time, Chelsea were in the League Cup semi-finals and the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners' Cup. Vialli won them both - the latter success making him the youngest manager to win a UEFA tournament.

Despite it being just his first full season as a manager, Vialli's unwavering passion for his work and battling leadership qualities had the club's players and fans firmly on his side. Beating Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup to kick off the 1998/98 campaign, the Blues would go on to finish third in the Premier League table - arguably their most meaningful title challenge since they had last won it 43 years prior.

Their league finish ensured Vialli could become a Champions League manager, and despite a 3-1 win over Barcelona in the quarter-finals, a second leg away defeat brought their European season to an end.

But what Vialli had done in such a short space of time was pave the way for a new era in Chelsea's history. One that without the work of the Italian would never have provided the platform for the continued growth seen today. Granted, investment in 2003 helped, but the work started by Gullit and built upon substantially by Vialli earned Chelsea greater recognition, and began filling a trophy cabinet that had collected nearly three decades of dust.

Chelsea FA Cup victory parade
Vialli is rightfully adored in west London | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

While the west Londoners finished two points shy of Liverpool in fifth that season, the campaign ended on a considerable high as Vialli guided the club to FA Cup final glory over Aston Villa. His time in the helm would come to an end shortly after lifting the Community Shield a few months later, but his fifth official trophy under 36 months meant he became the most successful manager in the club's history.

Not bad for an acrobatic striker without any prior managerial experience.

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