Long after he’d poked home the match-winning goal, Alvaro Morata snuck out of the stadium with his head bowed and an ice pack pressed against his split lip, a relic of his running battle with Vidi captain Roland Juhasz and a neat picture of the kind of night he endured.
“We are not here to take photos and enjoy ourselves,” Juhasz had warned before kick-off. “We are here to fight.” The Hungarian champions did exactly that and turned what should have been a routine night for the Spanish striker into a wild odyssey of battered bones and bruised confidence until his late redemption.
On the surface it was a performance that spluttered, one where the various cogs in Maurizio Sarri’s machine uncomfortably clunked together, where Eden Hazard had to be called upon earlier than anyone expected, and where a 1-0 lead was only narrowly preserved in the final minutes thanks to a brilliant reflex save by Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Yet the bigger picture was that Chelsea took control of their Europe League group and in doing so injected a little confidence into a struggling striker. Morata spent the first 70 minutes looking like a man for whom “football” was a new fad he was trying out, yet by the end he was the hero of the piece with a goal which Maurizio Sarri believes could reboot his season.
“It’s very important for him to score,” Sarri said. “I think it’s very important for him to play a very good match. I think Alvaro can restart from this performance. At the moment we have Alvaro and (Olivier) Giroud, but we have to play every three days for a long time, I think, I hope. And so he's a very important player for us, for our season.”
Morata was one of a number of players to be given much-needed minutes but perhaps even more important was the rest afforded to some of Sarri’s stars. Of what seems to be his current first-choice XI, only Kepa and Mateo Kovacic played 90 minutes, while Pedro played 55 minutes and Hazard 35. The other seven all had their feet up and that is some contrast to Liverpool’s gruelling battle at Napoli, Manchester City’s furious contest in Hoffenheim and Tottenham's evening chasing Lionel Messi around Wembley.
While Spurs were soundly beaten and Liverpool lost too, Chelsea regained a little momentum following that late thunderbolt by Daniel Sturridge last Saturday evening that stopped them from moving top of the Premier League. With leading lights reinstalled Chelsea should now overcome Southampton on Sunday to leave themselves on 20 points from eight games, at most two points behind the leaders, and still unbeaten in all competitions.
Sarri has treated the gap between the first international break and the second which kicks in next week as a kind of pre-season, a chance to assess as many of his players as possible and see who cottons on to his demands. Some are clearly on the fringes, like Danny Drinkwater, while it is a surprise youngsters like Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ethan Ampadu haven’t had more opportunities after impressing in actual pre-season, but Sarri has been able to keep most of his squad involved and has developed a seemingly harmonious camp.
That is not something which has always been taken for granted at Chelsea in recent years with Jose Mourinho and then Antonio Conte both leaving fractured dressing rooms in their wake. Sarri’s management style is a little softer and that seems to have had a positive effect on his players, with David Luiz reborn under the Italian and Hazard in the form of his life.
The only concerning aspect of Thursday night's performance for Sarri was not Morata’s early struggles or his side’s difficulty in breaking down the Hungarian champions but the way they were carved open on the counter-attack. “We have created a lot of goal opportunities but we have conceded two, three opportunities to the opponents,” he said. “I am not worried if we don't score for 45 minutes. I was not happy, but I think it can happen. I was worried about the fact that we have conceded three goal opportunities to the opponent, for our mistakes.”
Yet a manager as studious as Sarri will draw learnings from this sort of performance, and likewise those players who are still adapting to his style of play – ‘Loftus’, as Sarri refers to the England international, is not yet meeting his tactical demands – will have had another opportunity to immerse themselves in Sarriball. This was probably his team’s worst performance of the season, yet the reality is that they have taken control of their Europa League group, and may just have rebooted a malfunctioning striker in the process.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies