2018-19 EPL Match Day 22 — Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)

With multiple irons in the fire and a top-four spot to defend, Chelsea look to bounce back from a tough Carabao Cup loss Saturday when they host relegation-threatened Newcastle United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Eds note — replace Atsu for Muto on Newcastle left wing

The turn of the calendar year saw no let-up in the fixture list for the Pensioners, who were held to a draw at Southampton in their first league match of 2019. They followed that with a 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest on Saturday in the third round of the FA Cup as Alvaro Morata had a second-half brace.

Tuesday, though, was a different story as Chelsea (13-5-3) lost 1-0 to Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinals. Harry Kane’s contested penalty on 27 minutes was all that separated the London sides, with manager Maurizio Sarri taking heart in the fact the tie was still delicately balanced and Chelsea played far better than they did in a 3-1 loss to Spurs in late November in which they were bossed all over Wembley.

“We deserved more because in this match we played better than the opponents,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “We were in control of the match and defended well against a team dangerous in the offensive phase, so we deserved more. We played about 70 balls in the opposition box against 11 balls of Tottenham in our box, 18 shots against seven I think, five goal opportunities against two, so we deserve more.

“So I am really disappointed with the result but very happy with the performance, one of the most important of the season from my team.”

Sarri had issue with the penalty awarded Kane, noting the original call of Spurs being offsides should have stood as opposed to VAR overturning it after Chelsea keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga upended the England international. As someone who dealt with VAR while managing Napoli in Italy, Sarri dryly noted, “I think they need to study better this system.”

Chelsea already made a splash in the transfer market with the acquisition of Borussia Dortmund winger Christian Pulisic for next season, but for the January window, the London side are the subjects of constant speculation. Notably absent from Tuesday’s 18-man roster was Morata, with rumours of him returning to Spain with Sevilla bandied about.

There is talk of Sarri being reunited with Gonzalo Higuain, who is currently on loan from Napoli to AC Milan, with reports Higuain’s agent is in London to hammer out some sort of deal. Bayern Munich continue to be in pursuit of winger Callum Hudson-Odoi, who is making himself more indispensable to Sarri with each passing performance.

The good news for Sarri is two of the players currently in his squad – centre-forward Olivier Giroud and winger Pedro – should be available for starting duties after both came off the bench Tuesday. Giroud would allow Hazard to go back on the wing as opposed to the false nine spot Sarri has used the Belgium international more of late.

Newcastle United (4-6-11) could only hope to have such names associated with them bandied about in the transfer rumour mill as manager Rafa Benitez begins yet another window with hat in hand to owner Mike Ashley looking for any sort of reinforcements to help in the relegation scrap to stay afloat for a third consecutive season in 2019-20.

The Magpies have been linked with a possible move for winger Miguel Almiron, the Paraguay international who recently helped Atlanta United win the MLS Cup in just their second season in the top flight of American football. Atlanta is reportedly asking for a minimum of £24 million for the 24-year-old Almiron, who totaled 21 goals and 28 assists in 62 league matches the last two seasons, a figure that would finally break Newcastle’s transfer record of £16.5 million for Michael Owen in 2005.

“He is an amazing player, he was one of the best players on the pitch in both of the All-Star games that we played against Juventus and Real Madrid,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales recently told SkySports. “I have no doubt that when the time is right and the offer is right, he can be a success in whatever league he goes to.”

As Newcastle look to find reinforcements, Benitez must find a way to come up with points against the Big Six to aid in the relegation scrap. The Toons have yet to take any of a possible 21 from their first seven such contests after a 2-0 loss at Manchester United on Jan. 2. Some solace can be taken in Newcastle being a better road side than at home this term, collecting 11 of their 18 points (2-5-3) outside St James’ Park.

The expectation is Benitez will stay with the five-man backline he has used in league play for the last four league matches as well as the teams at the top of the table. Newcastle United will be without winger Kenedy for this match since he is ineligible to face his parent club, perhaps opening the door for Christian Atsu to play on the wing and move Ayoze Perez into a central playmaking role.

The ultra-conservative tactics nearly got Newcastle a point in the reverse fixture against Chelsea, who were gifted a 2-1 win when Newcastle right back DeAndre Yedlin deflected a shot by Marcos Alonso into his own net on 87 minutes. Hazard had staked the Pensioners to a lead on 76 minutes from the spot before the Magpies equalised through Joselu with seven minutes remaining.

Chelsea are 5-1-1 in their last seven versus Newcastle in all competitions and have won six on the bounce at Stamford Bridge since a 2-0 loss in 2012. The Magpies are a woeful 2-6-17 in their trips to Chelsea in the Premier League era, with the other triumph coming in the 2010-11 League Cup.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Bet365, Chelsea are 2/9 favourites to complete the double over Newcastle, who are 16/1 longshots to beat a Big Six side for the first time in eight tries this term. The odds of a draw to give the Magpies their first point in such contests are 6/1.

Oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to find a way to breach Newcastle’s defence, with 4/6 odds on clearing 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds on going under. There are 1/2 odds there will be a clean sheet in either direction, compared to a 6/4 offering on both sides scoring.

Unsurprisingly, Hazard leads the list of options for first goal-scorers, getting 13/5 odds to do it in both matches between the teams. Giroud, who may or may not start, is second at 10/3, while Morata rounds out the top three at 4/1. Chelsea, in fact, occupy the first 14 slots on the list for the first goal before there is a Rondon sighting at 18/1 along with Joselu. Hudson-Odoi is a 9/2 selection, followed by Willian (5/1) and Pedro (11/2).

Hazard and Giroud are better than even money odds at 4/5 and 5/6, respectively, to score at any time during the contest. Morata is again third at 11/10, with Hudson-Odoi (5/4) and Willian (7/5) completing the top five. Rondon and Joselu are again paired together, this time at 11/2, to score over the course of 90 minutes.

PREDICTION

What a difference a better performance makes. After looking like he wanted to run away and hide from the world after his side’s first loss to Spurs, Sarri was in much better spirits after Tuesday’s loss, and with good reason. The Pensioners took the fight to their London rivals for almost the entire hour after Kane’s penalty, denied once by the woodwork and also by some competent goaltending from Spurs deputy Paolo Gazzaniga.

This is a chance for Chelsea to reinforce what worked in that game, though it may also be a chance for Sarri to find out once and for all whether or not he wants to keep Morata or off-load him for a different centre-forward. Holding him out of Tuesday’s contest on the heels of a brace was puzzling unless there is a deal to send him back to a La Liga side. But given how Chelsea refused to let Cesc Fabregas leave for Monaco until Friday, it seems unlikely Morata will not at worst be on the bench for this game or possibly start.

Newcastle will be Newcastle in this match, which is every bit the backhanded compliment it is intended to be. The Magpies will defend resolutely and stubbornly, perhaps release Ritchie and Yedlin down the flanks on the occasional counter, but they will cede too much possession to Chelsea (again) and be suspectible to crosses in the box from Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta as opposed to the wingers given how compact the two lines will be.

It is understood Benitez is simply doing what he can with what he has, and it continues to be a source of frustration throughout Tyneside and the Toon Army given his coaching acumen in contrast to what he is given to work with considering the spendthrift ways of Ashley.

This match, as Agent Smith best said in The Matrix, “is the sound of inevitability.”

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Newcastle United 0.

OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Leicester City (9-4-8) vs. Southampton (3-7-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 11 Preview — Chelsea (7-3-0) vs. Crystal Palace (2-2-6)

After a curiously ragged Carabao Cup victory, Chelsea look to continue their unbeaten ways Sunday when they host Crystal Palace in a London derby at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues (7-3-0) have yet to lose under first-year manager Maurizio Sarri, also winning three Europa League matches and two in the Carabao Cup following a 3-2 victory Wednesday over former Chelsea star-turned coach Frank Lampard and Derby County – who used a pair of Chelsea players on loan after consent from the top-flight side.

Chelsea won despite scoring just one goal themselves as Derby gifted the Pensioners a pair of own goals inside the opening half-hour – goals they canceled out with quick responses on both occasions.

Cesc Fabregas scored what proved to be the match-winner in the 41st minute as Chelsea claimed a spot in the round of eight opposite Bournemouth. While some of the defensive issues can be chalked up to swapping out his entire back line as part of eight changes from their 4-0 waxing of Burnley last weekend, Sarri wants things fixed now before the problems grow.

“In the last match I have to say Derby played a very good match,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “We played well in the offensive phase, but a lot of mistakes in the defensive phase. It’s clear we need to improve.

“I am used to having problems like this in the first months. In Burnley I saw a very good performance in the defensive phase. Three days after I saw a lot of mistakes. It means we are a not a continuously solid team at the moment. It’s dangerous.”

With a win or draw, Sarri would match Frank Clark’s Premier League record for an unbeaten start. Clark opened 8-3-0 with a promoted Nottingham Forest side in 1994-95 en route to a third-place finish.

One issue Sarri must contend with is the status of star winger Eden Hazard. The Belgium international did not play against Burnley due to a back injury, and Sarri revealed he practiced for the first time in two weeks in training ahead of this match. The gaffer said Hazard would be “able to play for 40, 45 minutes,” which implies he would be on the bench to start this game and be called upon if needed.

That likely means Willian will switch flanks to take Hazard’s spot on the left, with Pedro expected to return after lasting just a half-hour against Burnley due to stomach issues. With Ross Barkley in splendid form – he has three goals and two assists in his last four matches – he likely gets the nod at left midfield over Mateo Kovacic.

Fellow midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who spent last season on loan at Crystal Palace, likely will be in the mix for the 18 again, but also of note Friday was Sarri ruling out a potential loan for the England international in the January window, noting “Ruben in October played four matches out of five. I think at the moment the situation is not for a loan of course. He has improved, but he needs to improve more from the tactical point of view.”

Crystal Palace (2-2-6) have sorely missed Loftus-Cheek’s industry through the midfield as they have now gone 395 minutes without a goal in the run of play after losing 1-0 at Championship side Middlesbrough – coached by one-time Palace boss Tony Pulis — on Wednesday in the round of 16 in the Carabao Cup.

Roy Hodgson made eight changes to the side that battled to a 2-2 draw versus Arsenal last weekend, getting both goals from the spot via Luka Milivojevic, but the decision to hold out Wilfried Zaha to rest ahead of this match backfired as the Eagles again were grounded in attack.

“Of course it’s a missed opportunity,” Hodgson told The Times while lamenting his side’s poor first half, “but you have to use these competitions. You have a squad of players and you have to give them the chance to play. A lot of them needed a game and none of them let me down at all.”

In addition to holding out Zaha, midfielders James McArthur and Cheikou Kouyate also did not make the trip to Middlesbrough to recover from niggling injuries. Forward Connor Wickham, however, has been ruled out with a thigh injury a fortnight after making his first league appearance in nearly two seasons with a late runout against Everton.

Palace’s last goal in the run of play came from left back Patrick Van Aanholt in their 2-1 loss at Bournemouth on Oct. 1. Zaha has not scored in five league matches dating to his winner versus Huddersfield Town on Sept. 15.

Though Loftus-Cheek could not play against his parent club last season per loan rules, Crystal Palace did split the two matches that finished with 2-1 scorelines. In the fixture at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea got their goals seven minutes apart through Willian and an own goal from Palace defender Martin Kelly.

Van Aanholt pulled one back at the death for the Eagles, who won in their previous two visits to west London. Chelsea are 12-2-4 versus Palace in the Premier League era, including a 6-1-2 mark at home.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Hazard’s iffy status has not deterred oddsmakers from making Chelsea prohibitive favourites with 2/7 odds. The Blues have 9/2 odds to claim at least one point from this contest, while Palace are 10/1 underdogs to claim a third win in four seasons at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea are better than even money to win with a final of more than 2.5 goals at 4/5, while the Pensioners are also a 14/5 pick to win by a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. There are 6/1 odds on a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, while the Eagles are 18/1 to win with more than 2.5 goals and 22/1 to post a clean sheet while winning by one or two.

Hazard still leads the line for first goal-scorers despite his status, checking in at 16/5 odds. Chelsea’s alternating strikers — Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud — are directly behind the Belgian at 10/3. Wingers Pedro and Willian are 5/1 picks to give the hosts a 1-0 lead, with Barkley a 6/1 selection and Loftus-Cheek 13/2 to score against the team he was loaned out to last term. Zaha is Palace’s top choice at 12/1 for a 0-1 shock scoreline, while Alexander Sorloth and Jordan Ayew are both 16/1.

Hazard is better than even money to score during the match, getting 10/11 odds, and Pedro and Willian are both 6/4 picks to put one past Wayne Hennessey. Morata and Giroud are even money to bag one for Chelsea, while Zaha has 10/3 odds to break his duck for Crystal Palace. As Palace’s penalty taker, Milivojevic offers an intriguing 7/1 return.

PREDICTION

There are two areas of intrigue for this match. One is whether Sarri starts Hazard and tries to put the game to bed early, and the second being whether the Italian has a sentimental streak and starts Loftus-Cheek over Barkley and/or Kovacic in left midfield against his former team. Given his comments about Loftus-Cheek when asked about the possibility of a January loan, it does not seem likely, but since nearly everything Sarri has touched has turned to gold thus far, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

It would be surprising to see Hazard in the first XI given he just returned to practice this week after missing two weeks’ worth. Sarri has enough attacking options at his disposal that he has the luxury of bringing the Belgium international off the bench, but since Chelsea are also all but assured of reaching the Europa League knockout round, he can also give Hazard another week off if his side take care of business in the first hour of this contest.

With Olivier Giroud held out of the Derby County match due to fatigue, it would not be surprising to see him get the start over Morata, though the Spaniard has the better form of the two pure strikers. Given Palace play a deep back four, Giroud’s hold-up and knock-down abilities make the France international a better tactical choice for Sarri as Giroud again looks for his first goal of the season.

In their two matches against “Big Six” sides, Palace held their own in a 2-0 loss to Liverpool that was closer than the scoreline indicates and last weekend’s 2-2 draw versus Arsenal. Both matches, though, came at home, and while Hodgson’s team have gotten better results outside Selhurst Park than in it this campaign, Palace’s lack of form offensively coupled with a decided disadvantage in talent in the midfield means Chelsea should stroll to three points in this contest.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 3, Crystal Palace 0.

OTHER MATCH DAY 11 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (7-1-2) vs. Liverpool (8-2-0)
Wolverhampton (4-3-3) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-3)
Bournemouth (6-2-2) vs. Manchester United (5-2-3)
Newcastle United (0-3-7) vs. Watford (6-1-3)

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)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 9 Preview — Chelsea (6-2-0) vs. Manchester United (4-1-3)

Jose Mourinho has yet to have a happy homecoming at Stamford Bridge since taking over Manchester United.

Another loss there to Chelsea on Saturday, however, could hasten the potential exit of “The Special One” from Old Trafford as he continues to battle the third-season woes.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Mourinho has lost all three matches in South West London since taking over United (4-1-3) in 2016, watching his team get outscored 6-0 in a pair of league defeats around a quarterfinal exit in the 2017 FA Cup. The fourth and most recent defeat to his former employers in six matches with United came last spring in the FA Cup final at Wembley, denying him a second trophy since arriving on the red side of Manchester.

The term has been a slog thus far for both Mourinho and United, who have yet to find a higher gear on the pitch, which in turn has exacerbated tensions between manager and players off it. The Red Devils enter this contest in eighth place, seven points adrift of reigning champions and eternal rivals Manchester City as well as Liverpool and Chelsea.

Even during the international break, United were not drama-free as Mourinho was charged by the FA on Tuesday for using abusive, insulting or improper language. The United boss was filmed mouthing words at a camera after his team’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Newcastle United on Oct. 6, with the FA alleging he swore in Spanish.

The possible target of his rant has a list of suspects as the day is long, but ex-United midfielder-turned-pundit Paul Scholes again refused to shy away from criticising Mourinho, launching another broadside in an interview with ESPN.

“I feel like people at Liverpool and Manchester City are looking at us and laughing like we did at them many years ago,” Scholes said. “If you look across the road, they’re doing everything right.

“It feels like every player who comes into the team struggles. I feel like we could sign Lionel Messi at the moment and he’d struggle in this team. The reason we finished second last year was because of (David De Gea) the goalkeeper.”

Mourinho has until Friday to answer the charge, which could result in either a touchline ban or a fine, though he could also delay the ruling if he waits until the 6 p.m. local deadline to accept or deny the charge. In that case, he would be all but certain to be on the sideline for this contest.

United’s lineup continues to be in a state of flux outside De Gea as form coming out of the international break could provide separation for starting spots. Marcus Rashford impressed for England in UEFA Nations League play, scoring for the third time in four international matches and adding an assist in Monday’s 3-2 victory over Spain.

There were points against Newcastle when Rashford and Romelu Lukaku swapped spots leading the line – Rashford in the central role and Lukaku on the wing – but whether Mourinho commits to that switch or gives the two freedom to interchange while either Alexis Sanchez or Anthony Martial operate on the left is anyone’s guess.

Ex-Chelsea and current United holding midfielder Nemanja Matic made a quick return to Carrington after suffering a back injury that prevented him from representing Serbia. Left back Luke Shaw is also an injury concern, skipping a call-up to the Three Lions due to an ankle injury suffered in the win over Newcastle.

Shaw, though, put pen to paper on an extension to keep him at Old Trafford through 2023, and Mourinho – who put the defender through the wringer prior to him pushing on through to be one of United’s best players thus far – extolled the England international’s virtues.

“Luke fully deserves this contract,” Mourinho said Thursday. “He understood his development process, he has worked really hard at every level and he always believes in himself which is a great attribute to have.

“Luke is still young and is improving all the time and he must feel very proud of himself. I am delighted that we are keeping such a talented young English player with a bright future ahead of him.”

Mourinho can only hope Paul Pogba’s backheel pass that set up Martial’s equaliser against the Magpies will be the start of the France international’s resurgence to the lofty heights achieved in winning the World Cup this summer. Mourinho and the midfielder have been at loggerheads from nearly the moment Pogba returned to training, and rumours regarding his potential departure continue to swirl around United.

Pogba has factored in four of United’s 13 goals in league play – scoring both his goals via penalties — but had a brace and an assist in their Champions League win over Young Boys last month.

As Manchester United lurch from crisis to crisis real and created, things are going well in Maurizio Sarri’s first season at Chelsea (6-2-0), who are bookended by Manchester City and Liverpool atop the table on goal difference. Of course, having the best player in the Premier League at the moment in Eden Hazard goes a long way to having a happy vibe, and the Belgium international has made the most his new-found freedom in Sarri-ball.

Hazard has a league-best seven goals and eight overall, thriving on the left wing of Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation and forming solid interplay with centre-forward Olivier Giroud, who has a team-leading four assists. Sarri has a defined rotation – much to the chagrin of midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the England international who cannot find consistent league playing time and may move on in January – as the Blues navigate a three-course track in the Carabao Cup and Europa League in addition to domestic duty.

One player who has surprisingly made an impact is midfielder Ross Barkley, whose improved play under Sarri’s tutelage has him neck-and-neck with Mateo Kovacic as a starter in left midfield.

Oft-injured and forgotten by the time his tenure at Everton ended in January, Barkley turned in a standout performance in the international break for England, highlighted by their 3-2 win over Spain, and club teammate Marcos Alonso was quick to give Barkley his due after his Roja side fell to defeat.

“Even at the World Cup England, despite playing well, were aware that they didn’t really have that kind of player, someone in the middle who played and made others play, who used the ball,” the left back noted to Chelsea’s official website. “He’s a great player. He showed it not just last night but against Croatia (last Friday) too. He showed that he can be a great player. I hope he keeps improving and that he helps us at Chelsea to stay near the top.”

With no injuries to report from the international break, Chelsea’s lineup will come down to Sarri’s decision-making up front with either Pedro or Willian on the right wing, Barkley or Kovacic in left midfield, and Giroud or Alvaro Morata leading the line.

Morata’s thunderous header in the 55th minute separated the sides in last season’s clash at Stamford Bridge, the Spain international drilling an inch-perfect cross from Cesar Azpilicueta into the upper right corner of the net.

Chelsea are unbeaten in their last eight at home (7-1-0) versus Manchester United in all competitions dating to a 3-2 loss Oct. 28, 2012. United have gone 299 minutes without a goal at Stamford Bridge since Jesse Lingard helped them to a 1-1 draw on Feb. 7, 2016.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are prohibitive 7/10 favourites, with United 15/4 underdogs. The odds of the teams splitting the points are slightly shorter than a road victory for Mourinho, landing at 11/4.

Oddsmakers are expecting goals in this match, as a Chelsea victory with a count over 2.5 goals leads the list of options at 31/20. A Blues victory under 2.5 goals will provide a 10/3 return, slightly ahead of a low-scoring draw at 4/1. For those who fancy United, they have 13/2 odds on a win with more than 2.5 goals and 9/1 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 win.

For the first goal-scorer of the match, Morata, Hazard and Giroud are all joint-favourites at 4/1, with Pedro behind the trio at 6/1. Willian, who often interchanges with Pedro, is right behind him at 13/2, and is followed by Lukaku as United’s top option at 7/1. Rashford is the second-rated United option at 17/2.

Morata and Giroud narrowly edge out Hazard as favourites for any-time goal scorers, getting 11/8 odds compared to Hazard’s 13/10. Pedro has 2/1 odds, again edging out Willian (21/10), while Lukaku (12/5) and Rashford (14/5) flank Chelsea’s Victor Moses (13/5).

PREDICTION

To park the bus or not to park the bus? That is the question facing Mourinho as he makes another trek to his former stomping grounds. Last season, he let United play open for most of the match at Stamford Bridge, a curious contrast to the FA Cup final in the last meeting between the teams in which the Mancunians conceded a penalty to Hazard and could not muster much offence without the injured Lukaku.

United’s form means there is little time for sentimentality for Mourinho, who offered a prickly reminder to the media earlier this season his three Premier League titles won at Chelsea are more than the other current 19 managers combined, saying Friday:

“For me, it’s another game. Would I celebrate like crazy, my team’s goal at Stamford Bridge or my team’s victory at Stamford Bridge? I don’t think so. I think I would try always to control myself and to respect the stadium and the supporters who were my supporters and [what was] my stadium for many years.

“So I think that I would always think about where I am, which stadium I am [in], which crowd is in the stands, but just that. Apart from that, it is just another match for me. It is a match that I want to do well in, for my players, my team, for my supporters – that’s what I want. I am 100 per cent Manchester United tomorrow [Saturday], but there is no space for anything more than respect for the stadium and for the fans that were my fans before.“

There is a chance Chelsea could have another high-quality thriller like their two previous contests with Liverpool, just like there is a chance Mourinho sets up to play for the point and take his chances on the counter. But United’s first order of business is finding a central defence partner with Chris Smalling, whether it be Victor Lindelof or Eric Bailly, and how their spine may slump depending on the fitness of Matic and Marouane Fellaini.

United’s dramatic win over Newcastle came at the best time and the worst time. It came at the best time because they could feel good about themselves for two weeks after pulling out three points from a match they had no business getting any for the first 70 minutes, but it came at the worst time because they could not immediately build on the momentum of this win.

On the other side, things appear to be well with Chelsea as everyone appeared to have a productive international break across Europe, and more importantly, no one got hurt. The 4-3-3 machine will wind up once more, with Sarri’s personnel choices the talking points more than the players, though Hazard is in arguably the best form of his club career.

Antonio Rudiger is a question mark due to a groin injury, but Andreas Christensen played well in the FA Cup final win over Manchester United, and there should not be much fall-off in central defence if he has to partner with David Luiz as the German’s replacement.

It will be curious to see if Barkley again gets the nod over Kovacic after his solid play for England during the break. It is a sign of how well Sarri’s system has taken at Chelsea he is almost at the point of plugging and playing personnel at spots in the Premier League compared to his preference of horses for courses with Giroud and Morata in Europa League.

This will not be an easy contest by any stretch of the imagination, but the track record of Mourinho being on the defensive against the Premier League’s best on the road will finally going bite him here. There does not appear to be enough in United’s spine to keep Chelsea off the scoreboard for 90 minutes unless De Gea turns in his best match of the season, and the Blues midfield might be able to boss this match through Jorginho and Kante’s two-way work.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: CHELSEA 1, Manchester United 0

OTHER MATCH DAY 9 PREVIEWS:

Manchester City (6-2-0) vs. Burnley (2-2-4)
West Ham United (2-1-5) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (6-0-2)
Wolverhampton (4-3-1) vs. Watford (4-1-3)
Arsenal (6-0-2) vs. Leicester City (4-0-4)

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)

 

 

 

2018-19 EPL Match Day 6 Preview — West Ham United (1-0-4) vs. Chelsea (5-0-0)

Chelsea maintained their 100 percent start in beginning their Europa League adventure with a victory, but Maurizio Sarri wants his side to be closer to perfection as they resume Premier League play Sunday with a London derby at West Ham United.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues (5-0-0), who lead the Premier League on goal difference over Liverpool, kicked off play in the second-tier continental tournament with a 1-0 victory at Greek side PAOK on Thursday. Willian’s goal in the seventh minute stood as the match-winner with Chelsea dominating the proceedings, but the lack of finishing beyond the Brasil international’s goal left Sarri pondering his attacking options going forward.

“We were in control of the match for 90 minutes,” Sarri told Chelsea’s official website. “We had a lot of opportunities, we missed them, so I am really happy with the three points and the performance but not the result, because when it is time to kill the match, we have to kill the match.”

Some of the lack of finishing can be attributed to Alvaro Morata, who led the line but failed to put any of his seven shots on target. The Spain international’s lone goal came against Arsenal on Aug. 18, and it would not be surprising to see Olivier Giroud restored to the starting XI after he assisted on pair of goals in last weekend’s 4-1 romp past Cardiff City.

“Morata has to gain confidence with one, two or three goals. I am not able to give him confidence,” Sarri noted. “In this game he had three or four opportunities, he was unlucky. I hope in the future I can try to help him, but the confidence comes only with goals.

“But I have to say also that for the first time this season he was very ready in the box. He was on the ball, he was active.”

Also expected to return to the starting lineup is Eden Hazard, who did not make the trip to Greece along with central defender David Luiz and midfielder Mateo Kovacic. Luiz should also return to the back four, but Kovacic was forced off versus Cardiff with a knee injury, which makes room for either Ross Barkley or Ruben Loftus-Cheek to join Jorginho and N’Golo Kante in the midfield.

Though Pedro suffered a shoulder injury late in a collision with PAOK keeper Alexandros Paschalakis, Sarri said the injury was minor and the Spaniard should be available. If not, Willian would slide into the right forward role in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation.

West Ham United (1-0-4) relieved some of the pressure on Manuel Pellegrini last weekend with a 3-1 victory at Everton, moving off the foot of the table and into 16th place. Andriy Yarmolenko justified his manager’s faith in being given his first start with a first-half brace, and Marko Arnautovic sealed the win with a goal just after the hour.

“I said at the start that Andriy needs a few weeks to get used to playing in the Premier League,” Pellegrini said at his Thursday news conference. “He has a lot of quality, we know that, but in this league you can’t just play with quality. You need pace and be prepared tactically to be an important part of the game.

“He demonstrated against Everton that it was the correct moment. He did it very well. After this performance, we must demand him to give more, because he’s able to be a top player for us.”

The Ukraine international may have to lead the line since Arnautovic is carrying a knock to his knee and may be relegated to the reserves list for this game. Fellow striker Chicharito Hernandez is still feeling the effects of a virus and also unlikely to feature, and midfielder Jack Wilshire is out due to an ankle injury.

Wilshire’s absence led Pellegrini to use a 4-1-4-1 set-up in which teenager and Ireland international Declan Rice played in front of the back four, forming an effective midfield triangle with Mark Noble and Pedro Obiang. Another option for this derby would be to start Michail Antonio as the lone forward and keep Yarmolenko underneath.

“A derby has a little bit more importance, of course,” Pellegrini said. “I know, here in London, there are a lot of derbies with different teams. Our first at home is against Chelsea, the team at the top of the table, so I think that is one more motivation to try to beat them.”

West Ham took four of the six points between the sides last term, including a 1-0 victory at London Stadium on a goal by Arnautovic six minutes in. The Irons have just three wins in the last 24 league matches between the teams (3-5-16).

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are solid favourites to continue their perfect start as they are listed at 6/10 odds to win. A draw is a 3/1 option while West Ham are longshots to protect their pitch at 17/4 odds.

Oddsmakers fancy a Chelsea win with more than 2.5 goals, listing it as the most likely outcome with 6/5 odds. The Pensioners also have 15/4 odds to win the contest by a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline, while a draw with either zero goals or two returns 19/4 odds. For those liking the Irons, there are 13/2 odds for a win over 2.5 goals and longer 12/1 odds they will post a clean sheet while winning 1-0 or 2-0.

The Chelsea trio of Hazard, Morata, and Giroud are joint-favourites to score the first goal of the match at 4/1, with Pedro lagging behind them at 11/2. Despite his injury, Arnautovic remains the top choice for the Hammers at 13/2, sharing those odds with Willian. Yarmolenko is listed at 17/2 to stake West Ham to a lead for the second straight contest.

Oddsmakers are all but convinced Hazard will continue his goal-scoring run as he leads the line with 23/20 odds for a marker over the 90 minutes. Morata and Giroud are right on his heels at 5/4, while Pedro (13/8) and Willian (2/1) round out Chelsea’s usual suspects. Arnautovic is the top pick for West Ham at 19/10, trailed by Chicharito (2/1), Lucas Perez (12/5), and both Yarmolenko and Antonio (13/5).

PREDICTION

Chelsea are the only team in Premier League history to have won their first five league matches and claim the title, doing so in 2005-06 and 2009-10. This time around, it will obviously be more difficult given the class of both reigning champions Manchester City and Liverpool, but the early returns on the Pensioners are they are at least viable for a top-four finish and could give the aforementioned squads a run for the trophy.

Sarri took no chances in Greece, fielding as strong a side as possible given his decision to leave Hazard, Luiz and Kovacic behind. Playing Barkley the full 90 minutes with Kovacic injures was an interesting decision by the Italian, more so in light of Pedro’s injury, even if it is not deemed serious. An intriguing option would be to play Willian behind Hazard in the 4-3-3 set-up if Pedro is healthy, but given how Sarri appears comfortable plugging in players at certain spots, it would not be surprising to see Barkley remain the starter and have Ruben Loftus-Cheek see his first action as his understudy.

This has the feel of match where Giroud finally moves the goal meter, having played a brilliant hold-up role last weekend versus Cardiff City while Hazard ran riot. Given the back line issues the Irons have had all season, Chelsea would be wise to funnel their attack through the pair. The France international’s low-maintenance ways and the Belgian’s nous in the final third have given Sarri all the time he needs to unlock the riddle of getting Morata going.

One wonders if Pellegrini will tinker with what worked after the Irons looked so appealing in thrashing Everton at Goodison Park. Arnautovic’s knock could throw a spanner into the works, but the Chilean at least does not lack for replacement options thanks to the £100 million spent in the offseason. Yarmolenko will have to be at his best to help keep Marcos Alonso from roaming forward from his left back position, and Anderson will at least need to be cognizant of Cesar Azpilicueta’s long-ball skills on the other flank.

While Rice performed well as the holding midfielder in front of the back four versus the Toffees, it would not be surprising to see Pellegrini shift to a 4-2-3-1 set-up in which the Ireland international teams with Noble or Obiang to form a bulwark against the Chelsea middle three.

This should be an entertaining derby, but Chelsea look too irresistible right now, especially against a West Ham back line that have yet to prove themselves in back-to-back matches and yet to record a clean sheet.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: West Ham United 0, CHELSEA 2.

OTHER MATCH DAY 6 PREVIEWS:

Burnley (0-1-4) vs. Bournemouth (3-1-1)
Crystal Palace (2-0-3) vs. Newcastle United (0-1-4)
Manchester United (3-0-2) vs. Wolverhampton (2-2-1)
Arsenal (3-0-2) vs. Everton (1-3-1)

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