For 70 minutes Alvaro Morata had toiled in the Stamford Bridge spotlights, with passes bumping off him and chances flashing by him, being bullied by Vidi’s pest of a captain and being booked for complaining about it. So when he finally hooked in a finish to break the deadlock on a frustrating night at Stamford Bridge, his reaction was telling, collapsing into Willian’s arms with relief.
Morata had been fairly dreadful for most of the game and at times he looked perplexed at his inability to locate his own talents. His malfunction was summed up by Chelsea’s best chance of the first half when he scooped Pedro’s reverse pass wide with the goalkeeper committed and the net near-empty; Stamford Bridge groaned and a concerned murmur rippled round the ground. He might have been hauled off had Olivier Giroud been sitting on the bench instead of the stands, but instead he stayed on and proved decisive in clinching a 1-0 win.
Chelsea now have six points from their opening two Europa League games but Maurizio Sarri will be concerned by their inability to break down Vidi’s defence. That was made plain on 52 minutes when he looked down the touchline, threw out up an arm and beckoned Eden Hazard. As the Belgian entered a fervour replaced the murmurs and every player in Blue seemed to raise themselves; for all Sarri’s deep pools of talent – and here Ruben Loftus-Cheek and his replacement Ross Barkley were two rare bright sparks – the effect of his star player remains irreplaceable.
Defensively they were worryingly troubled by their Hungarian visitors, the champions of a league ranked 33rd in Europe below Cyprus and Liechtenstein. Several counter-attacks would have been finished off by better opposition and Kepa Arrizabalaga’s brilliant late save diving low to his right covered over some of those cracks. In attack Chelsea missed Giroud’s focal qualities but there was also a lack of clinical play in the final third. At one point Emerson zoomed down the left wing only to balloon a cross out for goal-kick – he did a few of those – and Sarri could be seen huffing on the touchline and chewing agitatedly on his cigarette butt.
The Chelsea manager could not be accused of taking either the Europa League or Vidi lightly, naming a strong side with Willian, Pedro and Morata in attack and Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic shuttling behind. Arguably Sarri’s line-up seemed overly cautious to face their modest visitors – this seemed like a night ripe for talented teenagers like Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu to be blooded – yet perhaps Vidi’s dogged display vindicated his decision.
Chelsea initially created little outside Morata’s skewed effort. Emerson blasted over after a mazy run, Pedro saw a jabbed effort deflected wide and perhaps they should have had a penalty shortly before the break when Loftus-Cheek’s weaving run was chopped down, but it would have been barely deserved. Vidi created chances of their own on the counter and the right winger Loic Nego should have scored when he stole in after Emerson slipped, but shot tamely at Kepa.
Then entered Hazard, and with him a switch was flicked. The Belgian brought sharp one-twos and a dribbling threat down the left but in the end the goal came from the other side; Fabregas crossed from the right touchline for Willian to flick into Morata’s path and the striker turned his horror night on its head, with a stretch of a right leg which had seemed detached from his body for so much of the night.
Hazard had enough time to produce one of his skating dribbles from the touchline before teeing up Barkley, whose shot was inadvertently blocked by Morata, and Barkley, called up to the England squad earlier in the day, proved dangerous with several long-range efforts and a header which grazed the bar. It will be a concern that the snap reactions of Kepa were needed to preserve a clean sheet, with Gary Cahill and Andreas Christensen exposed once more, but the bottom line is that Chelsea have six points from six and progression from Group L looks a formality as they held on and Stamford Bridge breathed its own sigh of relief.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies