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.
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.
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.