Anyone who thinks the Europa League doesn’t have the potential to cause Chelsea problems should rethink that idea after Thursday night. A 1-0 Chelsea win against PAOK in Thessaloniki is nothing less than was expected pre-match, but the fact that Chelsea had to hang on despite their dominance could be a bit of a cause for concern.
Granted, Maurizio Sarri made five changes to the side that played against Cardiff, but the side that played against PAOK should have made the score line much more comfortable given their dominance of the match.
Even with Eden Hazard left behind in London, Chelsea’s midfield and attack created enough chances to win the match, but their poor finishing made the match look a lot closer than it was and left some heart-stopping moments at the end.
Despite the vociferous crowd supporting the home side, it seemed as if Chelsea might steamroll over PAOK in the opening minutes. Willian was given the captain’s armband for the night, and he opened the scoring just four minutes in after a brilliant counter attack.
Ross Barkley, restored to the side due to Mateo Kovacic’s injury, started the attack with a surging run through midfield. Barkley’s perfectly weighted pass for Willian gave the Brazilian a clear opportunity to pass the ball into the net, and Willian obliged, even though questions might be asked of PAOK goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis.
Alvaro Morata had plenty of chances to double Chelsea’s lead, but his end product let him down consistently. First, Pedro teed up Morata with a floated cross. Morata rose above his marker but headed the ball into the ground and wide.
Then Antonio Rudiger split open PAOK’s defensive line with a long diagonal that sent Morata clear. But after bringing the ball under control, the Spaniard scuffed his effort wide of the post.
Morata was unlucky not to score from a corner when he aimed a floated header to the back post and the ball drifted just wide with the keeper scrambling.
But he wasn’t the only one guilty of missing chances. Pedro had a golden opportunity late in the first half after another Chelsea counter. Marcos Alonso picked out Pedro with a brilliant slide rule pass, but Pedro half shot, half clipped the ball into the midsection of Paschalakis.
PAOK might consider themselves unlucky to have not been given a chance to equalise from the penalty spot just before the end of the first half when Ross Barkley’s shirt pull on his attacker was missed by the referee.
Willian should have had Chelsea’s second goal just before the hour mark when Barkley’s header toward goal bounced off Morata and landed at Willian’s feet. But Willian couldn’t quite get his body shape right and blazed the ball over the bar, leading to some screaming out of frustration.
Chelsea seemed to lose a bit of energy late in the match, and PAOK finally started to come forward after seeing the match played mostly in their defensive half.
Kepa Arrizabalaga had looked a bit shaky on high balls all night, and barely got a touch wide of the goal with two PAOK forwards waiting for a mistake after a long cross from the right.
Diego Biseswar had, perhaps, PAOK’s best chance of the night when the ball was worked to him on the left-hand side of the box. He cut inside for a shot, but his shot was straight at Arrizabalaga.
The big negative for Chelsea was Pedro departing the pitch just before full time with a shoulder injury after colliding with Paschalakis. Pedro was played into space on the counter and was pushed from behind after a poor first touch. Pedro lost his balance, but slid straight into the onrushing keeper and had to be helped from the pitch.
But Chelsea’s first taste of Thursday night football since winning the Europa League in 2013 results in a win away from home. Bigger tests await the Blues in the next week.