Juan Sebastian Veron was no stranger to English football when he signed for Chelsea in the summer of 2003. Having spent two seasons at Manchester United, during which he never quite adjusted, a move to Stamford Bridge was never going to be as daunting as swapping Lazio for United.
The Roman Abramovich revolution was in full swing when Veron agreed terms. Chelsea were clearly a team on the rise and their owner was willing to spend big money. The midfielder had hoped to fight for his place at Old Trafford but this was hardly a backward step.
And so the first Premiership game of this new era was eagerly awaited. That first game – against Liverpool at Anfield – would also be Veron’s league debut for The Blues. It was a tough place to start the season but also a very early examination of Chelsea’s title prospects.
Manager Claudio Ranieri, the charismatic Italian, was suddenly armed with an abundance of attacking options and named Veron as part of a midfield that included Frank Lampard and Geremi with Jesper Gronkjaer and Damien Duff on the flanks and Eidur Gudjohnsen leading the line. For Veron, this was a fresh start and a chance to shed the unwanted ‘flop’ tag that he had harshly earned at United.
And he delivered a special performance that silenced Anfield as Chelsea kick-started the Abramovich era with a dramatic 2-1 victory. Everybody had expected The Blues to be a far more dangerous force that season but this was a proper statement of intent, directed at Manchester United and Arsenal.
Veron set the ball rolling with a classy opener, giving Chelsea a dream start and some crucial momentum. Gronkjaer found space on the right and, when defender Stephane Henchoz slipped, the Dane’s cross arrived perfectly for Veron to drill home with perfect technique. Anfield fell silent as the Argentine’s team-mates rushed to celebrate. At times Veron had been accused of being too laid back and perhaps not showing enough passion but few would have guessed it from the look on his face after smashing home the opening goal.
He was everywhere, somehow managing to probe and control the game without looking flustered. His somewhat pedestrian style of play seemed to fit perfectly alongside the speedy outlets on the flanks and he had quickly developed an understanding with his team-mates. The Argentine emphasised this with an inspired through ball later in the first half. Gudjohnsen raced clear but could not find a way past Jerzy Dudek. It was almost a costly miss.
Though Liverpool dominated possession, there was no doubting the threat that The Blues posed on the counter attack. With Veron’s vision and the lightning speed of Gronkjaer and Duff, the home side had plenty to deal with. But The Reds’ pressure finally told with 14 minutes to go. Chelsea’s midfield began to look a little weary and Liverpool were awarded a penalty as Wayne Bridge fouled El-Hadji Diouf. Michael Owen fired the spot kick wide but was granted a second attempt after Carlo Cudicini was adjudged to have moved off his line. Owen made amends to equalise.
But Veron refused to abandon his bid for a memorable debut. And his team-mates clearly shared that desire as they regrouped for a late rally. With just minutes to go, Lampard picked out substitute Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and the Dutchman’s clinical finish snatched all three points.
Hasselbaink may have netted the winner, but it was impossible not to be impressed with Veron’s slick display at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield. Ranieri looked delighted and hailed the 2-1 win as ‘a great start to the season’.
Despite this bright start, The Blues would have to wait another year – and for the arrival of Jose Mourinho – before lifting the Premier League trophy. As for Veron, surprisingly he would soon slip out of favour as Chelsea explored other midfield options and the Argentine spent the next few seasons on loan in Italy and his homeland. Ultimately, Veron did not ditch the flop tag during his spell at Stamford Bridge but he at least had a fine debut to treasure.