A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s opening Europa League match away in Greece.
Chelsea kicked off their Europa League campaign in Thessalonica in Northern Greece with an away group match against PAOK. The Blues’s last match in this competition was their Branislav Ivanović inspired victory over Benfica in the final in 2013 at the Amsterdam Arena.
The group draw was relatively generous for the Londoners and they were immediately installed as strong favourites to win their group and progress to the knockout stage. However, their opening tie was away in a vociferous and passionate venue which would test the character of the side picked to kick off their campaign. With what in mind, manager Maurizio Sarri made fewer changes to his starting line up than most people expected.
Andreas Christensen and Davide Zappacosta were brought into the defence, while Ross Barkley returned in midfield and Willian and Alvaro Morata returned up front were the only changes. It was a clear indication from the manager of his intent that he and the club want to perform well in this competition.
This meant that, apart from Christensen, there was no room for young starlets Ethan Ampadu, Callum Hudson-Odoi or Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Indeed only the latter was named as a substitute as Sarri went into the colourful but intimidating atmosphere against what could have been a very dangerous opponent with the emphasis on experience within his team.
This was only the 6th match under Sarri’s tenure and, despite the changes in personnel, The Blues’s possession based passing style was immediately in full flow. The hosts did not press high but tried to remain strong in midfield. But the combination of Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Ross Barkley was too powerful for them.
It was Chelsea’s central engine room that created the first real chance. A fairly innocuous straight ball from Jorginho, lobbed over the midfield allowed Ross Barkley to turn and run directly at the home defence. A perfectly weighted pass to Willian allowed the Brazilian to slot the ball under the keeper and the deadlock was broken already in the 7th minute.
The rest of the first half took the shape of Chelsea dominating possession with regular chances while the home side were unable to create any pressure on a well protected and solid looking Chelsea defence. Aside from a couple of Pedro chances, one of which followed a lightening counter attack and a pinpoint accurate cross from the marauding Marcos Alonso, all of Chelsea’s attempts at goal fell to Alvaro Morata. Sadly the Spaniard’s confidence is at a very low ebb and the score line remained at the slenderest as possible.
Last season’s Greek league runners up tried as best they could but rarely looked likely to equalise. Meanwhile, Chelsea continued to dominate but they missed a number of chances to make the score line more emphatic and Morata was the biggest culprit. Sarri correctly stated after the match that his striker was more active in the penalty box than in recent matches and it was good to see him having attempts at goal, but the club cannot be so wasteful against stronger opposition. Morata has taken a few progressive steps forward, all he needs to do now is taken the final and biggest step – actually score some goals.
Apart from this, it was a pleasingly commanding performance. Rudiger and Christensen looked solid in central defence, while Barkley was lively and regularly burst forward. He richly deserved his assist and was a constant nuisance to the home defence.
So The Blues start their European campaign with an away win, whilst being able to fully or partly rest most of their first choice players. With back to back key matches coming up, this can not be under stated. The score line may not have sent a shiver down the back of Chelsea’s biggest rivals to lift the trophy, but there is a long way to go yet. Remember, in Sarri’s only group stage campaign whilst at Napoli started with a 5-0 victory as they went on to win all 6 group matches. However, they were then knocked out in the first knockout round and their excellent start was reduced to just a statistic.
With a home match against MOL Vidi from Hungary next, 3 points away in Greece will be the foundation for Chelsea to build a dominant group campaign as they hope to emulate Napoli’s 6 out of 6 wins.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue