With an eye on extending his 100 percent start in the Premier League, Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri has done a selective rotation of sorts as his side begins Europa League play Thursday night against Greece side PAOK in Thessaloniki.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Blues are participating in the Europa League for the first time since defeating Benfica to win the 2013 title in Amsterdam, landing in Europe’s second-tier tournament as one of the third-place finishers in their Champions League group. Chelsea had participated in the Champions League in four of their previous five seasons, missing out in 2016 after their disastrous Premier League title defence resulted in a 10th-place finish.
Sarri, though, has quickly rebuilt the London side since his arrival from Napoli, structuring the attack through Jorginho — who joined him from the Italian club at Stamford Bridge — and currently has the Pensioners atop the table, edging out Liverpool on goal difference while winning their first five matches. Chelsea dispatched Cardiff City 4-1 last weekend as Olivier Giroud set up Eden Hazard’s first two goals seven minutes apart late in the first half before the Belgium international completed his hat trick with a penalty 10 minutes from time.
“When I can’t create an opportunity to score or finish myself, I love to put my team-mates in a good position to finish,” Giroud told the club’s official website after making his first start of the season. “Eden knows me very well and when I can reach him in the box I do it. His quality is a different level in front of the box and in front of goal and he finished well. He always knows that I try to find him and I hope next time he will give me one back.”
Hazard, though, was left behind in London along with fellow starters David Luiz and Mateo Kovacic, with Sarri opting to rest them before Chelsea’s derby clash Sunday at West Ham United. Giroud himself is not guaranteed a spot in the starting XI either, with Sarri noting fellow striker Alvaro Morata could lead the line based on the manager’s scouting of Thursday’s opponents.
“On Saturday Oliver played very well,” praised Sarri. “Without scoring but he was very useful for his team-mates.
“In the last two weeks I have seen four matches of Cardiff and four matches of PAOK Salonika and I thought Giroud was more suitable for the Cardiff match and Morata for the other. So I don’t know who will be the striker of the future but I think both because we have to play 60 matches. In characteristics they are different and it depends on the kind of match.”
Luiz’s absence could mean a season debut for central defender Andreas Christensen. The 22-year-old Denmark international started 23 league matches last season under Antonio Conte but has been second choice to Luiz — whom Sarri is more comfortable with as a central defender who has license to roam forward.
Another player in line for a season debut is veteran midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who would fill Jorginho’s role as the hub of the offence. Kovacic’s absence, coupled with Ruben Loftus-Cheek being sidelined with a leg injury, means Ross Barkley will likely plug that spot in the midfield to the left of Fabregas.
Sarri has platooned the duo in league play, with Kovacic now starting after his acclimation period from Real Madrid.
PAOK fell into the Europa League after losing to Benfica 5-2 on aggregate in the third and final playoff round of Champions League qualifying. The Double-Headed Eagles had it all to play for after tying the Portuguese side 1-all on the road and took a lead through Aleksandar Prijovic in the quarter-hour of the second leg, but shipped four goals — two via penalty — in a 30-minute span bridging the halves.
PAOK defeated Swiss side FC Basel and Spartak Moscow over two-legged ties to get to that point, and the second-leg defeat to Benfica also stands as their only loss in nine matches in all competitions (6-2-1).
They have gained the maximum nine points from their first three league matches, but a two-point deduction from the abandonment of a match last March against archrivals AEK in which PAOK team owner Ivan Savvidis came onto the pitch with a gun in his hip holster has left them fourth in the domestic table, two points off the lead.
The Double-Headed Eagles rallied for a 3-1 victory at OFI Crete last Saturday, getting first-half goals from Diego Biseswar and Leo Matos to overturn an early deficit. Leo Jaba added PAOK’s third eight minutes after the restart as PAOK maintained their perfect start ahead of a highly anticipated clash with AEK this weekend.
Prijovic has five goals in eight matches across all competitions — four coming in Champions League matches — and is no stranger to English football having made stops in Derby County, Yeovil Town and Northampton Town. He did not play against OFI due to a leg injury but practiced with the team during the week and is expected to be available.
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are heavy favourites to win the first match between these clubs at 5/6 odds. Oddsmakers also expect the Pensioners to take home at least one point, posting 5/2 odds compared to 10/3 for a victory by PAOK.
Chelsea have strong 2/1 odds to win this match with more than 2.5 goals scored, and a Blues victory by either a 1-0 or 2-0 count (16/5) edge out a 0-0 or 1-1 draw (10/3) by a narrow count. People tabbing PAOK for an upset can get 13/2 odds over 2.5 goals or 15/2 under 2.5.
With Hazard resting in London, Giroud and Morata are joint-favourites to find the back of the net first at 9/2 odds. Pedro checks in third at 6/1, just ahead of Chelsea youngster Callud Hudson-Odoi (13/2). Nikolaos Karelis is PAOK’s top option at 13/2, but Prijovic was not on the board at the time of this writing.
Giroud and Morata are also joint-favourites to bag a goal over the course of 90 minutes with 8/5 odds, woth Pedro (2/1) and both Willian and Hudson-Odoi (9/4) expected to be in the hunt. Karelis again is the top listed option for the hosts at 23/10.
This is the match where Chelsea supporters begin to learn more about Sarri’s long-range philosophy for the club. After the pragmatism of both Conte and predecessor Jose Mourinho, and the side’s philosophy of loaning players to clubs all over Europe, the group stage of the Europa League allows the Blues to blood some of their younger players in a pressured environment.
Much was made of Chelsea signing young midfielder Ethan Ampadu to a five-year contract earlier this week. The 18-year-old can play both centre back and defensive midfielder and started a Carabao Cup match against Everton last season. He is the type of player the Blues need and supporters want to nurture at the club, and matches like this are where that starts.
This should be a straightforward match for Chelsea, though the atmosphere could be a little rattling depending on how many youngsters start. Something else to watch in this contest is if keeper Willy Caballero gets the call in what would be his first start since his howler against Croatia for Argentina in the World Cup essentially opened the floodgates and heavily contributed to their shock exit in group play in Russia.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: PAOK 0, Chelsea 3.