After a tranquil night turned so frantic that a panicky David Luiz slapped the ball away from his penalty area as the clock ran down, the natural takeaway from Stamford Bridge was that Chelsea were worryingly erratic, wholly unreliable and will need to play well for much more than only 30 minutes if they are to win the Europa League. Frankfurt await in the semi-finals, a Bundesliga team who present a far stiffer challenge than Malmo, Dynamo Kiev or Thursday night’s quarter-final opponents Slavia Prague, even if they gave Chelsea quite a fright before eventually succumbing to a 4-3 defeat.
Maurizio Sarri said as much after the game, describing Chelsea’s inability to perform beyond half-time as “a big problem” to solve. “As usual in the last two months, we started very badly in the second half. We need a solution. In the last 10 matches we started [the second half] like in this match. It’s a big problem. Probably at the end of the first half we thought we were qualified, but against these opponents it’s not true. They have physical numbers… I have never seen something like that in the last 20 years. The number of accelerations, the metres in high speed, the running… I’ve never seen anything like these opponents.”
So Chelsea must improve, but how much? This 2018-19 Europa League, of all Europa Leagues, seems relatively soft: Benfica and Napoli were two of the bigger names to exit in the last eight, leaving Arsenal and Valencia on the other side of the draw. Any of the remaining four could feasibly win the competition but there is no outstanding candidate, no team to fear like Unai Emery’s Sevilla of years gone by or the Atletico Madrid of last season. Chelsea might be flakey, unreliable, erratic, but if anything, in a sea of Europa-ish talent, they are the ones with the most obvious Champions League player.
Eden Hazard was booted to the fringes of this particular game by a rotating cohort of Slavia defenders intent on raking his Achilles at every opportunity. The Belgian hobbled out of the stadium but he wore a big grin and Sarri assured that it was only bruising, and that he would be ready for Burnley on Monday. And, of course, Hazard will play against Frankfurt: he has been used sparingly in this European campaign, but there is no doubt Sarri will reap everything he can from now until the end of the season in what is likely to be Hazard’s last at the club.
And perhaps this was the most fruitful part of Chelsea’s night: that in that opening half-hour blitz, when they scored four of the game’s five goals, Sarri might just have been convinced of his most potent front three. Hazard was sharp and decisive in the build-up to the second goal, but alongside him it was Olivier Giroud and Pedro who actually dished out the lasting damage.
Giroud was excellent as a kind of bludgeon at the top of the team, holding up the ball with his feet while holding off defenders with his body. At the same time he acted as a useful foil for Hazard and Pedro, who bounced balls off him as they weaved in and out of the opposition.
This is nothing new, of course: Hazard has made plain on plenty of occasions that he prefers to play roving from the left than false nine, that he prefers to combine with Giroud than Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain or just about anyone else in the Chelsea squad. And although in recent weeks Callum Hudson-Odoi has often been the right-sided component, on this form Pedro has to play with them.
For 45 minutes the little Spaniard had one of those busily effective games where he was an utter nuisance, constantly moving, ducking under armpits and pretending to be left footed. In the buildup to Chelsea’s third goal he tackled a defender who hadn’t had a proper chance to get the ball under control and who looked genuinely aghast at the sheer rudeness of it all.
Most convincing of all was the opening goal. Pedro was at the heart of a spinning carousel which tangled Slavia in knots, eventually getting on the end of a one-two with Giroud before dinking the ball over the goalkeeper. It was exactly what Chelsea fans would have wanted from Sarriball when the Italian was first mooted as their manager last summer.
Hudson-Odoi is continuing to flourish, and played a useful role stretching the game in the second half here, while the permanent enigma that is Willian remains arguably more naturally talented than anyone bar Hazard, but on this form it is Pedro and Giroud that deserve the chance to play in the semi-final.
Chelsea must now find a way to play well for longer, and if Sarri can solve that particular problem they will have every chance of winning a Europa League that is there for the taking.
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