It is a journey that has been made by very few players but Nemanja Matic showed this week that the door is always open for an ex-Blue to come back home to Stamford Bridge.
The Serbia international midfielder became the first former Chelsea player to re-join the club since Graeme Le Saux in 1997 and just the seventh in the past half-century to make the return journey to SW6 after a successful spell at Portuguese giants Benfica where he established himself as a world-class player.
But while he is now part of a very select group of players who have returned for a second spell at the Bridge, Matic’s comeback bears little resemblance to the previous six.
For one, the Serbian had yet to properly establish himself as a Chelsea player when he left us three years ago unlike Le Saux, Nigel Spackman, Steve Wicks, and 1970 FA Cup winners Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood and John Hollins, who all enjoyed significant playing time during their first spells with the Blues.
At 25, Matic is also by far the youngest of the group to re-join the club. Unlike Cooke, Osgood, Hollins and Wicks, who were in the valedictory portions of their careers when they were welcomed back by the Chelsea faithful, there is a significant upside to bringing back Matic, who can not only seamlessly fit into the current squad but still has his prime years as a footballer ahead of him.
And of course, there is the transfer fee that was paid to Benfica to re-sign the Serbian. In that regard, his return does bear some resemblance to that of Le Saux who left the club for Blackburn Rovers in a GBP700,000 deal in 1993 but returned four years later for GBP5 million (then a record fee for a British defender) after winning the Premier League title at Ewood Park and establishing himself as England’s first-choice left back.
Naturally, much has been made of Matic’s reported transfer fee, but if you put on your blue-tinted glasses and look back at the situation of the club in January 2011 and what was to follow, you are unlikely to see it that way.
After a desperately poor run that had seen us manage only two wins in 11 Premier League games, Chelsea were sitting outside the top four and in real danger of missing out on Champions League qualification the following season.
Matic was then a promising young Blue on loan at Vitesse Arnhem, who was not quite ready to challenge the likes of Frank Lampard, Ramires, Michael Essien and John Mikel Obi for a spot in central midfield. Our main concern instead was in central defence where Alex was sidelined by injury and John Terry also had fitness concerns leaving us desperately short of cover at a crucial juncture of the season.
That prompted our interest in David Luiz and part of the price for bringing him to the Bridge was allowing Matic to join Benfica in part exchange.
It was a costly move financially but not only did the Brazilian boost our defensive resources, he also scored crucial goals against both Manchester clubs that helped us to pick up 25 of a possible 27 points in a nine-match unbeaten run. It may not have been enough to help us retain the title but it did ensure that we finished in second spot and qualified for the Champions League.
And if you’re a Chelsea fan, I do not need to remind you of what happened in that tournament the following season.
Three years on and central midfield is now a major concern and so Matic has been brought back from his finishing school at Benfica to complement our resources in that department. Of course, it’s been an expensive exercise to bring him back but the honing of his skills and talent in Portugal should be a huge benefit to the club for this season and hopefully years to come.
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