A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s first leg against Dynamo Kiev.
Chelsea took on Dynamo Kiev on Thursday evening at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of their last 16 tie of this season’s Europa League. With the second leg next week in a raucous hostile atmosphere, The Blues were looking to build a commanding lead to take to Ukraine’s capital.
Chelsea have been through an extremely busy and tough schedule in recent weeks. Heavy defeats in the Premier League and elimination from both domestic cup competitions were replaced by back to back London derby victories in the last week as The Blues started to turn a corner.
While there have been signs of improved performances and the club now lies within striking distance of the top 4, the schedule is taking a toll on the physical and mental fitness of the team’s key players. This meant that despite the hope of fielding the strongest line up, manager Maurizio Sarri needed to juggle his squad.
The Italian made 6 changes to the team that started against Fulham at the weekend. As expected David Luiz returned in defence and replaced Antonio Rudiger, while Marcos Alonso, Davide Zappacosta, Mateo Kovacic, Pedro and Olivier Giroud all came in. This meant no starts for Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Callum Hudson-Odoi as the manager utilised experience to try and gain a decent lead in the tie at home.
It did mean that Rudiger, along with Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante and Gonzalo Higuain all were rested as The Blues keep up with their 2 fixtures a week demanding schedule.
Dynamo were forced in to making a change. Important striker Fran Sol was unavailable and was replaced by 20 year old Nazariy Rusyn. This was a blow for a team who are dangerous in attack, especially on the break. The Ukrainians had only failed to score once in their previous 8 matches in the competition this season.
Chelsea started the match brightly and constantly pressed the visitors back towards their own goal. However the ball into the penalty box was constantly not good enough, a trend epitomised by Willian’s poorly taken early free kick and first corner. To make matters worse, the only time Dynamo ventured forward in the first 15 minutes their free kick was floated in very dangerously.
But then on 17 minutes, Chelsea’s high press paid dividends as Pedro slotted home after Giroud’s back heel. Then just 2 minutes later, Pedro miscued when being in almost the exact same position.
That seemed to spark Dynamo in to playing forward. But with just Rusyn up front and the Chelsea midfield slotting back into a deep line very efficiently, the Ukrainians did not really get close to Kepa’s goal.
As the match ebbed and flowed, Chelsea’s movement and pace dominated. Both Barkley, Pedro again and Alonso had chances to extend the lead. David Luiz, wearing the captain’s armband was in his element. Pinpoint long passes, a delightfully floated through ball over the defence for Pedro and a very solid performance at the back were all part of a commanding showing from the Brazilian.
Dynamo’s persistence to play the ball out from their keeper kept the pressure at their end of the pitch but Chelsea once again were unable to convert their dominance in to a bigger lead at half time.
The score line would have sat very well in the away dressing room. They had been under a lot of pressure for almost the entire first 45 minutes. They would have believed that they would still get their chance for a precious away goal.
Chelsea started the second half quite lethargically. Sarri’s comments about his players being tired physically and mentally appeared to already be taking a hold. However, to his credit, the manager was clearly not happy and sent some of his substitutes out to warm up.
As Kante and Loftus-Cheek replaced Jorginho and Barkley, the home side immediately stamped more authority on the second period. Then an attacking run from Loftus-Cheek earned The Blues a free kick in a great spot and, just like in 2015, Willian stepped up and fired the kick into the top corner. His previous poor set pieces in the match seemed a distant memory after such a glorious finish.
The second goal seemed to completely take the wind out of the visitors, but The Blues started to sit back with an air of comfort around them. This opened the opportunity for Dynamo to muster enough to go in search of a vital away goal. And they very nearly got one.
Then, in the 90th minute, Kepa played the ball out to the right and very quickly The Blues were on a counter attack. Accuracy in the pass and clever movement from the Chelsea players meant that the ball ended up with Ruben Loftus-Cheek who, unselfishly, laid the ball on to Callum Hudson-Odoi who slotted in the vital third goal. That was the 18 year old’s 3rd goal in the Europa League.
That goal managed to put the icing on the cake for Sarri and all at the club. It will take a quite incredible capitulation for Chelsea to be knocked out in Ukraine and their opponents do not look capable of mounting the comeback that they require.
However, that 3rd goal meant something else for most of the fans. To see the 2 youth products linking up like that was exactly what they were baying for. The hottest conversation amongst the fans over the last week or so has been why these 2 players are not used more often by the manager.
They both made a difference when they came on, with Loftus-Cheek getting 2 assists and Hudson-Odoi scoring the 3rd goal, but they came up against a tiring defence that had been run in circles all match.
Sarri will also be focusing in on both players losing the ball in midfield, which could have given their opponents an opportunity to create a goal chance. But these were minor compared to their positive contributions. And after all, Dynamo did not muster a single attempt on target all match.
The score line is the commanding lead that we all hoped for and Hazard, Higuain and Rudiger were able to sit there with their feet up enjoying the result. With other key players not playing a full 90 minutes, Sarri managed to achieve everything that he was aiming for. But the minutes and especially the contributions of RLC and CHO should be seen as the biggest positive.
Chelsea are looking good for the next round and further progress in this important competition.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue