Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — BATE Borisov (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

Chelsea have a chance to wrap up the top spot in Group L of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a home-and-home sweep of BATE Borisov in Belarus.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues are still unbeaten under first-year manager Maurizio Sarri. In addition to grabbing the maximum nine points from their first three group matches, Chelsea are two points back of reigning champions Manchester City in the Premier League, in second place ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.

Sarri’s side, though, have had struggle finding goals in this competition with five goals in the three victories. The good news is they put three past the Tractor Boys at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, trigging their current four-match winning streak in all competitions in which they have piled up 13 goals after pulling away for a 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace last Sunday.

Eden Hazard, who had been slowed by a back injury that resulted in a three-match absence, came off the bench versus Palace and made an immediate contribution after has introduction by assisting on Alvaro Morata’s tie-breaking goal on 65 minutes.

It was Hazard’s fourth overall assist and his third in league play coming off the bench. The Belgium international has logged just 36 minutes in Europa League play, but Sarri included him on the roster to make the 3,200-mile round trip with an eye on finishing off qualification for the knockout round. The Pensioners will claim group honours with a victory and a draw by Midi and PAOK in the other match.

“According to our doctor there is not any risk, otherwise he would have stayed at Cobham, of course,” Sarri told the club’s official website. “We felt that for him it’s better to play, not for 90 minutes, but to play after two weeks of not playing.

“In the last match he played only for 30 minutes. The best way for him is that tomorrow he will play for 45 or 50 minutes.”

Somewhat surprising is who did not make the trip in Morata and midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Morata appeared to turn a corner with his brace, giving him six goals in all competitions, but Sarri saw this as an opportune time to give the Spaniard a breather having played all but 16 minutes in Chelsea’s last three matches while Olivier Giroud dealt with a knock.

Fabregas has been waylaid by an illness, prompting N’Golo Kante to make the trip. But since that is not the like-for-like switch that Sarri prefers, it appears Jorginho will serve as midfield metronome for the 4-3-3.

“We are in a perfect mood,” left midfielder Mateo Kovacic said. “We are doing good in our league and we are doing good in all competitions so this team wants to play football, we enjoy it, and every game we have an opportunity to show ourselves, so tomorrow we will be prepared and give our best to win the game.

“We are still unbeaten and we have not played at our highest level. We are with the coach only three months and of course it needs time to understand completely and to work on his football. I think we are doing a great job and I am sure in every training and every game we will be better and better.”

Sarri’s pattern of rotating his entire back line appears set to continue as Emerson, Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill and David Zappacosta are likely to feature in front of Kepa Arrizabalaga.

BATE, who have wrapped up their 13th consecutive domestic title, have won three on the bounce since their loss to Chelsea and are coming off a 1-0 victory over Neman Grodno on Sunday. Yevegniy Berezkin came off the bench in the 77th minute and scored the winner two minutes from time.

The Tractor Boys have lost their last two group matches after winning at Midi, and the seven goals shipped in those two defeats have left them at the bottom of Group L at the halfway point. BATE will be keen to contain Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who ran riot in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge and accounted for all of Chelsea’s offence in the 3-0 victory.

We have followed all the games Chelsea have played. Videoton played well, had plenty of chances and could have got a different result. They are an example for us,” BATE manager Alyaksey Baha told BT Sport. “We analyse the games (against Arsenal) so we learnt from our mistakes. Now, a year later we are here in England, in London, playing against a top club, and we hope for a better result this time.”

Chelsea have outshot opponents 73-15 through the first three matches of group play and have won six consecutive Europa League matches dating back to a loss to Ruben Kazan in 2013. BATE have just two wins in their last 15 Europa League matches (2-5-8) while shipping 33 goals.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decided favourites to make the group a fait accompli with 4/11 odds to take home all three points. There are 15/4 odds for the teams to split the points, while hosts BATE are a 17/2 pick to pull off an upset and improve their chances of getting out of the group.

The Blues are almost even money to win with a result of more than 2.5 goals at 21/20, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline — they posted a 0-1 result at PAOK in their other group play contest on the road — has a 5/2 return. The odds of a deadlock at 0-0 and 1-1 are 15/4, while BATE has 16/1 odds for a victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold.

Oddsmakers have listed nine Chelsea players and the “no goal-scorer” ahead of BATE’s top option for the first goal of the match. Eden Hazard leads the line at 16/5, while Chelsea’s strikers Morata and Olivier Giroud are joint-second at 7/2. Willian follows at 9/2, edging out Callum Hudson-Odoi and fellow winger Pedro (5/1). Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lurk slightly further back at 6/1. The top picks for BATE are Nikolai Signevich and Igor Stasevich at 12/1.

No one on Chelsea is better than even money to score, though Hazard (21/2), Morata and Giroud (both 23/20) are close. Willian is also a favourite among the oddsmakers at 8/5 while Hudson-Odoi and Pedro (both 7/4) and Loftus-Cheek and Barkley (19/10) also have shorter odds than 2/1. Signevich (7/2) edges out Stasevich (4/1) for the top BATE option to put one in the back of the net.

PREDICTION

One of the more interesting things about Chelsea is that they are as capable of grinding down opponents for a 1-0 victory or cruising by them 3-0. This match has the feel of the former given Chelsea’s previous road exploits in group play and the fact Sarri has committed to rotating his players more consistently, evidenced by changing over his back line and finding a way to get Loftus-Cheek involved.

By bringing Kante for Fabregas, it is possible the midfield could be Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic and Kante from left to right. Regardless of the trio, the primary task besides scoring must be to get Olivier Giroud involved in his return. The France international has four assists, tied for the most among Chelsea players — but has yet to open his scoring account.

The fact Chelsea have gone 16 matches without a loss and without a goal from Giroud is a testament not only to the talent the Pensioners have but also just how well they have taken to Sarri’s tactics and how well he has quickly figured out this squad.

Hazard likely will not become a factor in this match until the hour mark, unless Chelsea are trailing at the interval, and then the 45-minute estimation Sarri offered would come into play. Otherwise, this reeks of a blue-collar match in which Chelsea will control the ball similar to the 60 percent possession they had at Stamford Bridge. It would seem less likely Loftus-Cheek will strike for another hat trick, but one goal could be enough to see off the Tractor Boys.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: BATE Borisov 0, Chelsea 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

Europa League Match Day 3 Preview — Chelsea (2-0-0, 6, +2) vs. BATE (1-0-1, 3, -1)

Chelsea’s bid to extend their lead atop Group L of the Europa League on Thursday against BATE will be made without Eden Hazard as the Belgium superstar has been ruled out of this contest with a back injury.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues have gained the maximum six points through two matches by way of the narrowest scoreline possible, posting 1-0 victories over PAOK and MOL Vidi. Maurizio Sarri is expecting another such challenge from BATE, who are bearing down on their 13th consecutive Belorussian Premier League title as they have a nine-point lead with five league matches remaining.

“In Europe everything is difficult,’ Sarri said at Thursday’s news conference. “The other two games were not easy, so we have to prepare our minds to play another difficult match because this opponent during the season has lost only four times I think and for them the season is going to finish soon. This season they have done better away than at home, so it is not easy.”

Chelsea remained unbeaten in all competitions under their first-year manager but just barely, as Ross Barkley’s goal in the 95th minute Saturday salvaged a 2-2 draw against Manchester United. Antonio Rudiger had the other goal, getting free in space to head home a corner from Willian in the 21st minute. The Blues, though, struggled to cope with a more aggressive United in the second 45 minutes in which Sarri felt his team “lost control of the match” in the final half-hour by straying from the style that has gotten them to third in the table, two points behind Manchester City and Liverpool.

While much has been made of Sarri’s decision to field lineups primarily with senior players not seeing regular Premier League time as opposed to blooding the youth of Chelsea’s academy, this may be a match where Sarri’s decision to go in that direction requires those players at the bottom of the 18-man roster on Premier League matchdays to step forward.

Sarri has ruled out both Hazard and playmaker Jorginho. The former has a back injury, while the latter is being rested after featuring in both matches during international duty for Italy before logging the full match versus United.

‘This match is not a big problem, because we have to play five days after the last match,” Sarri explained in his Wednesday news conference. “The problem will be on Sunday as we have to play after 65 hours, so we need to change something. We need to think and be careful. For instance Jorginho needs to rest now as he played two 90 minutes in two match for the Italy national team and then nearly 100 minutes in our last game, so it is time to rest for him.

“(Thursday) Eden Hazard is out for sure. He has a back problem. We are trying to solve the problem for Sunday, I think it is not very easy, and the other one out is Ethan Ampadu because of a knee injury. That was suffered on international duty with Wales.”

It appears Sarri will turn over his entire back line as Emerson, Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill and Davide Zappacosta are all in line for a start, though regular left back Marcos Alonso made news Wednesday by putting pen to paper on a five-year extension to stay at Stamford Bridge through 2023.

Jorginho’s absence means Cesc Fabregas will be pulling the strings in the midfield, while midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek is healthy and could see his first action for Chelsea since Sept. 12.

Up front, either Willian or Victor Moses is expected to slot into Hazard’s spot on the left, and Olivier Giroud likely will lead the line as Sarri continues to vacillate between the France international and Alvaro Morata depending on who has the better form for league play.

Morata and Willian have Chelsea’s Europa League goals, while keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has needed to make just four saves for his two clean sheets.

BATE have split their first two group matches, winning 2-0 at MOL Vidi before being overrun 4-1 at home by Greek side PAOK earlier this month. The Tractor Boys avoided a third consecutive loss in all competitions Saturday, edging Gorodeya 3-2 at home. Maksim Skavysh rescued the win for BATE in the 86th minute after they had squandered a 2-0 lead built on goals by Hervaine Mekontso and Nikolai Sihnevich on either side of halftime.

While BATE prefer to use a 4-3-3 formation, it is more likely they will morph into a 4-5-1 in an attempt to stifle Chelsea’s movement. Skavysh and Igor Stasevich share the team lead with seven goals in all competitions, with Nikolai Signevich and Mirko Ivanic contributing six apiece.

BATE are well aware of the presence Giroud brings in the penalty area as the centre-forward scored in both Europa League group matches against them last season playing for Arsenal. The Tractor Boys were given a drumming in their last visit to London as the Gunners smashed six by them without reply in a dead rubber to complete group play.

Their only other match in England was a 1-0 victory at Everton in group play in 2009-10.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decisive favourites to retain their 100 percent Europa League record with 2/15 odds for a victory. The odds of a draw are 7/1, while BATE are 22/1 longshots to claim their first win in England in nine years.

Despite their narrow victories to open group play, oddsmakers are still expecting Chelsea to score goals in this contest. They have 4/7 odds to post a victory while scoring more than 2.5 goals, while a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline checks in with 12/5 odds. A split of the points via a 0-0 or 1-1 final has 17/2 odds, while victories for BATE offer a 45/1 return for under 2.5 goals and 50/1 over that threshold.

Almost all of Chelsea’s expected roster are expected to score the first goal of the match, led by strikers Morata (13/5) and Giroud (14/5). Pedro, Willian, and Callum Hudson-Odoi are all joint-third at 9/2, with Victor Moses (5/1) and Barkley (13/2) rounding out the top seven to make it 1-0. BATE’s top options to create a 0-1 scoreline are Signevich and Jasse Touminen at 18/1, which is slightly longer than there being no goal-scorer in the match (16/1).

Oddsmaker expect a Chelsea striker to score as both Morata (4/6) and Giroud (3/4) are better than even money selections. Pedro and Willian are just off that pace — both have 5/4 odds to find the back of the net — while Hudson-Odoi (11/8), Moses (6/4) and Barkley (15/8) are all better than 2/1 choices.

For the Tractor Boys, Tumoinen and Signevich are joint top-options at 5/1, with Moukam and Mikhail Gordejchuk just behind them at 11/2.

PREDICTION

It is unfair to label Sarri’s decision to hold out both Hazard and Jorginho “a risk,” especially with Hazard dealing with a back issue, but the moves fairly raise the question of how Chelsea maintain their continuity and rhythm offensively without their metronome (Jorginho) and impresario (Hazard).

In theory, there should not be much fall-off in the former because Fabregas is fully capable of directing an offence, and the Pensions should see a lion’s share of the possession that takes full advantage of his passing strengths to thread creases in BATE’s lines. It is the movement and nous of Hazard in the final third where it could take time for Chelsea to unlock the final third — they will undoubtedly have industry in Giroud, and it may be a case where Chelsea go outside-in from the flanks to wreak havoc and wear down BATE by way of crosses pumped into the box to earn corners and then score via set pieces.

The other expected decision to replace the entire back four is also an intriguing one, but it is also one that makes sense given Cahill is the only one who has played with the first-team back line as an injury replacement, and that was all for 21 minutes. Sometimes defenders work better in units, and the projected back four for this match gets a chance to prove that for a second straight contest.

BATE will have some confidence gleaned from their road victory at VOL Midi — they ended a 12-match road winless streak (0-2-10) in European competitions — but the Tractor Boys will likely get plowed here by a Chelsea side that should win their first three group matches in European competitions for the first time since the 2010-11 Champions League.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, BATE 0.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Sporting CP (2-0-0) vs. Arsenal (2-0-0)

Europa League Match Day 2 Preview: Chelsea (1-0-0, +1, 1-0) vs. MOL Vidi FC (0-0-1, -2, 0-2)

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.

POTENTIAL XIs

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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:

Qarabag FK (0-0-1) vs. Arsenal (1-0-0)

 

 

 

Europa League Match Day 1 preview — PAOK FC vs. Chelsea

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 1 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal vs. Vorskla