After a highly productive week in which Chelsea proved themselves worthy of being counted among the Premier League title contenders, Maurizio Sarri’s team look to keep the good times rolling Thursday when they host Hungarian side MOL Vidi FC at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea enjoyed a blazing start under Sarri, winning their first six matches in all competitions that included a workmanlike 1-0 victory at Greek side PAOK. But some doubts were raised after a dour 0-0 draw at West Ham United in which the Blues’ 4-3-3 attack was largely stymied by a disciplined Irons side in two banks of four.
Some could argue West Ham deserved a victory and let Chelsea off the hook when Andriy Yarmolenko missed a sitter of a header late. The competition level ramped up again with a pair of matches against Champions League runners-up Liverpool, one in the Carabao Cup and another in league play in which the full depth of Sarri’s squad would be tested.
In the Carabao Cup, Chelsea ended Liverpool’s 100 percent run with a 2-1 victory at Anfield, with Eden Hazard providing the razor-thin margin of separation with a jaw-dropping individual effort for the match-winner on 85 minutes, tearing through half of Liverpool’s defence before beating Simon Mingolet.
The Premier League tussle in London provided more of the high-quality football that showed Chelsea are definitely among those who can ask questions of the league’s best, including reigning champions Manchester City. Hazard continued terrorising opposing differences, racing onto an exquisite through ball by Mateo Kovacic and beat Alisson across goal inside the right corner on 25 minutes.
This time, however, the world-class goal belonged to Liverpool, who received a stunning equaliser by Daniel Sturridge, whose left-footed rocket from 25 yards found the perfect spot of space over the outstretched hand of Kepa Arrizabalaga and just underneath the upper right 90 in the 89th minute as the sides split the points in a highly entertaining 1-1 draw.
After two high-intensity matches, Sarri has signaled he is going to turn over a good portion of his starting XI for this match so they can rest ahead of Sunday’s clash at Southampton. Conceivably, the Italian manager can overturn his entire lineup from the one that drew Liverpool, but there is a definite curiosity for him to try out Cesc Fabregas in Jorginho’s role as the deep-lying midfielder who doubles as the hub of all offence.
“Cesc did very well in the last 30 minutes in Greece and very well for 90 minutes in Liverpool,” Sarri told the club’s official website, referring to the Spaniard’s effort in the Carabao Cup. “He has to improve his physical condition of course but he is a great option in this position. Cesc is very good in moving the ball, like Jorginho, more than Jorginho, so we don’t need to change the style of football with Fabregas.”
Chelsea’s midfield could get an entire makeover, with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek also likely to feature on either side of Fabregas. For the latter, it has been a disappointing lack of playing time after contributing to England’s run to the World Cup semifinal as a bustling midfielder off the bench.
Loftus-Cheek, a full-time starter last season on loan at Crystal Palace and had wanted to return to Selhurst Park knowing his spot was still there, has played just 33 minutes in two appearances and has not played in Chelsea’s last five matches due to both injuries and Sarri’s preferences.
Barkley, on the other hand, has flourished under the Italian’s tutelage and emerged as Kovacic’s understudy on the left side of the midfield in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation. He is hoping to get a call-up to England’s national side for the upcoming international break — potentially at Loftus-Cheek’s expense — and praised the coach for elevating his technical understanding of the game.
“Over the years I haven’t been coached much and I am at an age now where I understand football a lot more and I know how important it is to take the different tactics from different managers on board,” Barkley told The Times. “I feel like right now I am ready to understand every aspect of the game.
“When I broke into the Everton side under Roberto Martínez, I was playing in the No 10 role and I had never played there before from when I was developing through the academy to the first team. I was getting used to that role as a first-team player but usually I was a No 8 or, before I broke my leg, I was a deep-lying midfield player. I have always been a centre midfielder, either in a two or a three, and now I am in a three and I feel really comfortable with that.”
MOL Vidi, formerly known as Videoton before changing sponsors in the offseason, are at the bottom of Group L after opening with a 2-0 loss to BATE Borisov. Vidi are currently third in the domestic table through eight matches, eight points adrift of Ferencavros, and have won three contests on the bounce heading into this meeting.
They are coming off a 1-0 victory at Diosygor on Sunday, riding a 69th-minute goal by Szabolcs Huszti. Vidi talisman Juhasz Roland is making his first appearance in England in over a decade, last doing so with Belgian side Anderlecht, and is excited to see how his side stacks up with one of Europe’s heavyweight clubs.
“I was here around 13 years ago with Anderlecht, but so much has changed since then. I was at the start of my career back then, and I am now heading towards the end,” said Roland, the 35-year-old defender with two goals on the season, to the club’s official website. “I am pleased that I can be here again, which is why I signed for Vidi back then. Chelsea are the favourites but we can measure where we are against them. We must be fully focused throughout and if we are not, we will be punished. We want to enjoy every minute of the game.”
Vidi have scored 16 goals in league play, with Huszti and Marko Scepovic pacing the side with three goals apiece. Marko’s younger brother Stefan has also bagged a goal for the Hungary squad.
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are overwhelming favourites to win and stay unbeaten at 1/12 odds. Even a split of the points seems like a far-fetched fantasy to oddsmakers, who have installed a draw at 10/1 odds, which is far shorter than a shock scoreline of Vidi winning, which is 22/1.
Oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to run rampant, even with a second-choice lineup, as a hosts win with more than 2.5 goals has 4/11 odds. Even a soft 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline in favour of Chelsea has a 7/2 return. The odds of a 0-0 or 1-1 draw are a distant 12/1, which pales in comparison to a Vidi win with more than 2.5 goals (60/1) or less (70/1). Chelsea are also getting 6/10 odds to win with a clean sheet.
Alvaro Morata is one of three Chelsea players listed at 11/4 to score the match’s first goal, but the Spaniard is the only expected starter of the trio as both Hazard and Olivier Giroud join him. In fact, 14 of 16 potential Chelsea outfield players are listed as more likely to score the first goal of this contest before finding Marko Scepovic on the toteboard at 16/1.
A whopping four Chelsea players are better than even money to score during this match, with Pedro (5/6) joining the aforementioned trio of Morata (4/7), Giroud (4/7) and frontrunner Hazard (8/15). Another two — Willian and Callam Hudson-Odoi — are even money. Scepovic is again Vidi’s top option at a more modest 4/1 to help his side avoid a shutout.
This will be a case of Chelsea being able to “veni and vici” Vidi, with the only question the margin of victory. It is a chance for Sarri to see his full squad and also see who is absorbing the new system he has installed beyond his top 13 outfield players since Barkley, Pedro and Morata are pigeonholed as his primary three substitutes in his 18-man group.
In a bigger picture, this is a very important match for Loftus-Cheek, who may be better served leaving the squad in January via transfer given how well-defined this squad is in order to make sure he does not fall too far down the pecking order for Gareth Southgate’s England squad. It also is a chance for Fabregas to prove his worth to Sarri, who has taken the same tack he did with Hazard earlier in this season regarding conditioning in adjusting to his higher-tempo style.
So in a perfect world, Chelsea win comfortably, no one gets injured and Sarri only has things to nit-pick about as opposed to worry his lessons are not taking hold. With the international break coming after Sunday’s match versus Southampton, Chelsea have an excellent opportunity to remain unbeaten during that sojourn, and it starts with this match.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 4, Vidi 0.
OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 2 PREVIEWS: