One year, six months, seven days. That’s how long it had been since Chelsea had last played in the champions league, in March 2016. Back then, they lost 2 – 1 to PSG on the night and 4 – 2 on aggregate. Those were difficult times, and looking at what had happened to other big English clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United, there had been no guarantee champions league football would be back any time soon.
But somehow, here we were again. Last season’s Conte miracle had put the club back among football’s elite. European football brought schedule congestion with it though; Chelsea were playing the second of seven big games in 21 days, so the squad would have to be rotated pretty heavily to cope. And the thing with heavy rotation, as Chelsea manager Antonio Conte himself said, it’s a risk. Football is full of examples of smaller, settled teams getting shock results against talented individuals with no chemistry. Hopefully it wouldn’t be the case tonight against FK Qarabag.
Chelsea made five changes to the line-up against Leicester City – Andreas Christensen, Michy Batshuayi, Gary Cahill, Willian and Davide Zappacosta all started. Their opponents did not have a lot of European history, but the game was not guaranteed to be a walkover by any means. FK Qarabag had been the Azerbaijani Premier League champions four seasons in a row, and so were unlikely to be overawed by Chelsea. They had also beaten Danish Superliga champions FC Copenhagen 1 – 0 at home, before scoring an away goal in Denmark to secure a place in the Champions League group stages.
Line-Ups & Ratings
Courtois 6, Alonso 7, Cahill 7, Christensen 8, Azpilicueta 8 (Rudiger 7), Zappacosta 9, Kante 7 (Bakayoko 7), Fabregas 8, Willian 8, Pedro 8 (Hazard 7), Batshuayi 8
Subs Caballero, Rudiger, Luiz, Moses, Bakayoko, Hazard, Morata
Sehic 3, Medvedev 5, Rzezniczak 4, Huseynov 4, Sadiqov (Madatov 4), Qarayev 4 (Diniyev 4), Oliveira 5, Guerrier 3, Madera 5, Da Silva 5 (Elyounoussi 4), Ndlovu 4
Subs Kanibolotskiy, Madatov, Diniyev, Elyounoussi, Amirquliyev, Ismayilov, Yunuszada
It didn’t take long for the Premier League Champions to get this particular party started though. In the 5th minute, maestro Cesc Fabregas played a short corner to Willian on the right wing. Qarabag’s players were crowded deep in their box, perhaps expecting a long cross to Cahill or Batshuayi. Willian spotted Pedro loitering in plenty of space just outside the D, and set him up with a pass – and Pedro didn’t disappoint, curling one of his trademark edge-of-the-box specials into the net. Qarabag keeper Sehic did manage to get a hand to it, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the goal.
There were some heartening moments, and also a few concerns for Chelsea in the first half. Andreas Christensen made a number of mature, vital recoveries to help settle the defence. He did especially well backing up Gary Cahill and Marcos Alonso on the left side of the pitch. Cesar Azpilicueta looked a little gassed at times, perhaps from all the football he’d been playing recently.
Michy Batshuayi showed some beautiful link up play with both wide forwards Willian and Pedro, but his movement was still a tiny bit lacking. It was almost looking like once again, he might not make the most of a great opportunity to score some goals.
Gary Cahill made an unnecessary lunge early on that earned him a deserved yellow card. You winced, thinking, “We stopped playing like that after Burnley Gary!” and prayed under your breath he would make it through the full ninety this time.
These minor challenges aside though, it was heartening to watch Davide Zappacosta’s dribbling, energy and movement down Chelsea’s right side. He connected with a long through ball from Fabregas on 24 minutes, got a header off, but was just half a yard offside. You started to get the feeling watching him, that Chelsea had signed another Conte sleeper hit, a right wing back that might be as much a goal threat as Marcos Alonso on the left side. And then…
Thibaut Courtois released Zappacosta with a throw out down the right on 29 minutes. He looked to make a pass, but Willian was not completely open. So he opted to dribble past his markers instead, and broke at speed down the right wing. He sprinted a full sixty yards before looking up, and looping a world class cross-shot from the right wing, inside the keeper and in the net.
There’s no other way to say it. FK Qarabag got zapped. Seriously though, both first half goals from Pedro and Zappacosta were world class, and worthy of welcoming Champions League football back to Stamford Bridge.
Confidence and Class
Chelsea came out in the second half more dominant than in the first. After Qarabag winger Guerrier bundled Willian over out on the right, he stepped up to take the free kick himself. The ball was passed short to Fabregas, who dragged it inside, then played an outside right-foot cross over the defence and into the box. Azpilicueta easily escaped his marker, and finished the move with a simple header past the keeper for goal number three. The SB party was at this point, in full swing.
Eden Hazard came on for Pedro on 58 minutes, and Tiemoue Bakayoko, hench as ever, replaced N’golo Kante on 63 minutes. Hazard started pulling strings, and Chelsea were playing some classy football now. Michy was getting into the flow of things too, getting away from his markers and receiving the ball facing goal more. After a brilliant Willian dummy on the left, Batshuayi connected the ball up to Hazard. The Belgian playmaker set up Willian, who drifted inside and smashed a shot off the crossbar. There were just twenty-three minutes left to play, but even 3 – 0 down, there were warning signs all over the place for the visitors.
Chelsea played yet another short corner on 70 minutes, this time to Hazard on the left wing. He crossed into the box and the ball rebounded off Michel to Bakayoko. Baka did not hesitate, striking a deflected shot off Huseynov and into the goal for 4 – 0.
Off The Mark
After some good pressure from Batshuayi and Hazard on the left wing, Antonio Rudiger intercepted a misplaced pass. He released Batshuayi inside, who turned and drove a grass cutter left of the keeper for his first competitive goal of the season. It was the goal Michy’s hard work deserved, and it was good to finally see him smiling and celebrating this season.
There was one more to come from Michy, but although he provided the finish for the last goal (or maybe the final touch was off Medvedev), this particular move was all about Davide Zappacosta. The ex-Torino full back had shown Kante-like reserves of energy the entire game, living in the opposition half and snapping at the heels of Qarabag’s defenders like a hyperkinetic terrier.
He intercepted the ball twice in succession off Guerrier and Rzezniczak, then left them eating dust as he carried down the by-line into the box. He threaded a low cross in for Batshuayi, who had arrived just in time to bundle the ball in for 6 – 0.
It was a pretty good return to Champions League football for Chelsea. They had 55% of possession and six goals from eight shots on target, versus Qarabag’s zero from two shots. FK Qarabag did their best to make a game of it, but to be honest they were outclassed on the night.
Interestingly, all six of Chelsea’s goals this game came from the wings. Five of the six were created from (or were) crosses; three of these started as set pieces in wide areas, and two of them were from wide interceptions in the final third. Whether that says something about Chelsea’s tendencies with new players like Zappacosta, or whether it’s indicative of what Qarabag were giving them on the night, remains to be seen.
At the end, although the rotation did carry some risk, there’s nothing quite like making changes when you have a good squad and the right preparations are made. It rests the starters, keeps the squad players fit, boosts morale and team spirit, and most of all promotes healthy competition as players compete to outdo each other. The club, and the fans can only benefit.
Final Score Chelsea 6 – 0 FK Qarabag
Thumbnail image courtesy of: ESPN FC
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