Chelsea return to Stamford Bridge for the second leg of their Europa League clash against Slavia Prague on Thursday night.
As if winning the Europa League trophy wasn’t important enough, Sunday’s defeat at Anfield damaged Chelsea’s hopes of finishing in the Champions League qualification places, and the Europa League might be the only way for the Blues to be a part of that competition next season.
Sunday’s match also put Maurizio Sarri’s tactics into question. Chelsea’s attack looked dangerous in the transition phase at times, but Sarri’s decision to play Eden Hazard as a striker and leave both Gonzalo Higuain and Olivier Giroud on the bench seemed to be a puzzling one.
Hazard never looks completely convincing in that role, despite it completely freeing him from defensive responsibilities, and he’s not equipped to play as an out ball when Chelsea need to relieve defensive pressure.
It also brought Jorginho’s defensive weaknesses into question again and has left some supporters wondering what exactly he offers to the team other than being a favourite of the manager.
It’s highly unlikely that Sarri plays the same lineup that he did on Sunday, but the question will be who does play.
Giroud is likely to start in attack, but with Hazard, Willian, and Callum Hudson-Odoi all in the starting 11 on Sunday, a rest could be considered for two of those players. Pedro will likely get a start since he didn’t feature on Sunday. Hudson-Odoi may start against Slavia Prague because he was the only one of the three to not complete the full 90 minutes.
Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic are both likely to start, though the major decision will be whether N’Golo Kante or Jorginho are picked to play. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has played well in the Europa League, but Chelsea have been managing his lingering back problem, so he’s likely to start on the bench.
One major change that will need to be made is in central defence. Antonio Rudiger limped off on Sunday with a knee injury. The severity of the injury is unknown, but he won’t feature on Thursday with Andreas Christensen likely to take his place alongside David Luiz.
Christensen has not been completely convincing at times, but this is another big chance for the Danish defender to fill the void left by Rudiger who’s established himself as one of the best defenders in the squad.
Chelsea carry a 1-0 aggregate lead into Thursday’s match, and the late away goal from Marcos Alonso gives them a slight margin of error. But complacency is the weakness of this Chelsea team, and Slavia have enough quality to take advantage of any mental lapses from the Blues.
The goal is simple. Victory on Thursday sends Chelsea to a semi-final and another step towards a trophy at the end of the season.