Another wild night of European football played out here at Stamford Bridge, as what initially looked like a game in which Slavia Prague would be the latest team thrashed on Chelsea’s Europa League run became a strangely fraught affair. If the first half showcased perhaps the purest example all season of what Sarriball can be when it’s done right, the second showed why too many games seem to spiral out of control when it goes wrong.
It had been a thrilling start with five goals in the first 26 minutes. It wasn’t quite as quick as the goal rush at the Etihad a night earlier, but some of the football was just as mesmeric as Chelsea seemingly put the tie to sleep, leading 4-1 at half-time. Yet Maurizio Sarri’s team came out after the break half-asleep themselves, and two brilliant strikes by Slavia winger Petr Sevcik made for a far more nervy night than it ever should have been.
By the end Chelsea were clinging on, worryingly so. Sevcik missed a golden chance to score his hat-trick, and an unnecessary handball by David Luis presented a free-kick on the edge of the box which Slavia wasted. Even so, it is Chelsea who progress to the final four of the competition, winning 5-3 on aggregate, and they will be a difficult if unpredictable opponent for Frankfurt in the semi-finals.
This second half apart, Chelsea’s passage through the Europa League has been incredibly serene. They are competition’s top scorers with 30 goals, having conceded only seven in their 12 games. It is about to get significantly harder against the Bundesliga side, but if the Chelsea team which produced the devastating interplay of this first half show up – for most of the 180 minutes – then even Frankfurt will struggle to live them.
For once Eden Hazard was not the chief entertainer, quite literally kicked to the margins by Slavia’s robust defensive ploy which seemed to consist entirely of treading on Hazard’s left Achilles whenever he came near. They managed to rip a hole in his sock but Olivier Giroud punched far more meaningful holes in the Slavia defence, leaving Pedro to dart through them.
Giroud this week made plain his desire for more game time, and on this evidence Chelsea would do well to listen. He is the Europa League’s top scorer after adding his 10th here and he was constantly involved, part battering ram, part brick wall for Pedro and Hazard to bounce balls against. He might not fit the archetypical Sarri forward, but none of his teammates have proved as effective leading line, nor at getting the best out of the scurriers either side.
The first goal was everything Sarri must have imagined when he arrived at Stamford Bridge last summer, all pinpoint precision at a hundred miles per hour. It began with David Luiz, who swept one of those arcing passes out to the right wing where Cesar Azpilicueta had been tip-toeing forwards undetected. The captain cushioned a header down for Pedro before a web of passes twisted the Slavia defence in knots, and as Pedro cut inside he played a quick one-two with Giroud before dinking a clever finish over the goalkeeper Ondrej Kolar.
That was the fifth minute and within 10 Chelsea had another. Giroud muscled away a defender before sliding Hazard in on the left of the box, who squared to Pedro arriving on the far side for a tap in. Incredibly Pedro hit the post from all of two yards, but his embarrassment was immediately transferred to Slavia’s Simon Deli when the ball cannoned off the woodwork and into the centre-half’s face before rebounding into the roof of the net.
Pedro was at the heart of the third too, when N’golo Kante released him behind the defence and he unselfishly teed up Giroud to roll into a half-empty net. Slavia soon pulled one back when the captain Tomas Soucek steered in a header from a corner, but Chelsea replied within 20 seconds of the kick-off when Pedro grabbed his second, scuffing in a rebound after Giroud’s close-range shot had been fumbled. It was 4-1, and all seemed calm.
But then came Sevcik’s second-half double blow. If Kepa Arrizabalaga should have done better getting down to the first strike, which was drilled into the bottom corner, there was nothing he could to reach the second which crashed into the top corner.
From there Chelsea seemed rattled and Slavia took control, but try as they might, they could not find another to set up the unthinkable. On another wild night in Europe, however, the bottom line is that Chelsea are into the semi-finals of the Europa League. They can be erratic, but at their slick best they will be a formidable force to have to stop.
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