Chelsea have a chance to wrap up the top spot in Group L of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a home-and-home sweep of BATE Borisov in Belarus.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Blues are still unbeaten under first-year manager Maurizio Sarri. In addition to grabbing the maximum nine points from their first three group matches, Chelsea are two points back of reigning champions Manchester City in the Premier League, in second place ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.
Sarri’s side, though, have had struggle finding goals in this competition with five goals in the three victories. The good news is they put three past the Tractor Boys at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, trigging their current four-match winning streak in all competitions in which they have piled up 13 goals after pulling away for a 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace last Sunday.
Eden Hazard, who had been slowed by a back injury that resulted in a three-match absence, came off the bench versus Palace and made an immediate contribution after has introduction by assisting on Alvaro Morata’s tie-breaking goal on 65 minutes.
It was Hazard’s fourth overall assist and his third in league play coming off the bench. The Belgium international has logged just 36 minutes in Europa League play, but Sarri included him on the roster to make the 3,200-mile round trip with an eye on finishing off qualification for the knockout round. The Pensioners will claim group honours with a victory and a draw by Midi and PAOK in the other match.
“According to our doctor there is not any risk, otherwise he would have stayed at Cobham, of course,” Sarri told the club’s official website. “We felt that for him it’s better to play, not for 90 minutes, but to play after two weeks of not playing.
“In the last match he played only for 30 minutes. The best way for him is that tomorrow he will play for 45 or 50 minutes.”
Somewhat surprising is who did not make the trip in Morata and midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Morata appeared to turn a corner with his brace, giving him six goals in all competitions, but Sarri saw this as an opportune time to give the Spaniard a breather having played all but 16 minutes in Chelsea’s last three matches while Olivier Giroud dealt with a knock.
Fabregas has been waylaid by an illness, prompting N’Golo Kante to make the trip. But since that is not the like-for-like switch that Sarri prefers, it appears Jorginho will serve as midfield metronome for the 4-3-3.
“We are in a perfect mood,” left midfielder Mateo Kovacic said. “We are doing good in our league and we are doing good in all competitions so this team wants to play football, we enjoy it, and every game we have an opportunity to show ourselves, so tomorrow we will be prepared and give our best to win the game.
“We are still unbeaten and we have not played at our highest level. We are with the coach only three months and of course it needs time to understand completely and to work on his football. I think we are doing a great job and I am sure in every training and every game we will be better and better.”
Sarri’s pattern of rotating his entire back line appears set to continue as Emerson, Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill and David Zappacosta are likely to feature in front of Kepa Arrizabalaga.
BATE, who have wrapped up their 13th consecutive domestic title, have won three on the bounce since their loss to Chelsea and are coming off a 1-0 victory over Neman Grodno on Sunday. Yevegniy Berezkin came off the bench in the 77th minute and scored the winner two minutes from time.
The Tractor Boys have lost their last two group matches after winning at Midi, and the seven goals shipped in those two defeats have left them at the bottom of Group L at the halfway point. BATE will be keen to contain Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who ran riot in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge and accounted for all of Chelsea’s offence in the 3-0 victory.
“We have followed all the games Chelsea have played. Videoton played well, had plenty of chances and could have got a different result. They are an example for us,” BATE manager Alyaksey Baha told BT Sport. “We analyse the games (against Arsenal) so we learnt from our mistakes. Now, a year later we are here in England, in London, playing against a top club, and we hope for a better result this time.”
Chelsea have outshot opponents 73-15 through the first three matches of group play and have won six consecutive Europa League matches dating back to a loss to Ruben Kazan in 2013. BATE have just two wins in their last 15 Europa League matches (2-5-8) while shipping 33 goals.
Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decided favourites to make the group a fait accompli with 4/11 odds to take home all three points. There are 15/4 odds for the teams to split the points, while hosts BATE are a 17/2 pick to pull off an upset and improve their chances of getting out of the group.
The Blues are almost even money to win with a result of more than 2.5 goals at 21/20, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline — they posted a 0-1 result at PAOK in their other group play contest on the road — has a 5/2 return. The odds of a deadlock at 0-0 and 1-1 are 15/4, while BATE has 16/1 odds for a victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold.
Oddsmakers have listed nine Chelsea players and the “no goal-scorer” ahead of BATE’s top option for the first goal of the match. Eden Hazard leads the line at 16/5, while Chelsea’s strikers Morata and Olivier Giroud are joint-second at 7/2. Willian follows at 9/2, edging out Callum Hudson-Odoi and fellow winger Pedro (5/1). Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lurk slightly further back at 6/1. The top picks for BATE are Nikolai Signevich and Igor Stasevich at 12/1.
No one on Chelsea is better than even money to score, though Hazard (21/2), Morata and Giroud (both 23/20) are close. Willian is also a favourite among the oddsmakers at 8/5 while Hudson-Odoi and Pedro (both 7/4) and Loftus-Cheek and Barkley (19/10) also have shorter odds than 2/1. Signevich (7/2) edges out Stasevich (4/1) for the top BATE option to put one in the back of the net.
One of the more interesting things about Chelsea is that they are as capable of grinding down opponents for a 1-0 victory or cruising by them 3-0. This match has the feel of the former given Chelsea’s previous road exploits in group play and the fact Sarri has committed to rotating his players more consistently, evidenced by changing over his back line and finding a way to get Loftus-Cheek involved.
By bringing Kante for Fabregas, it is possible the midfield could be Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic and Kante from left to right. Regardless of the trio, the primary task besides scoring must be to get Olivier Giroud involved in his return. The France international has four assists, tied for the most among Chelsea players — but has yet to open his scoring account.
The fact Chelsea have gone 16 matches without a loss and without a goal from Giroud is a testament not only to the talent the Pensioners have but also just how well they have taken to Sarri’s tactics and how well he has quickly figured out this squad.
Hazard likely will not become a factor in this match until the hour mark, unless Chelsea are trailing at the interval, and then the 45-minute estimation Sarri offered would come into play. Otherwise, this reeks of a blue-collar match in which Chelsea will control the ball similar to the 60 percent possession they had at Stamford Bridge. It would seem less likely Loftus-Cheek will strike for another hat trick, but one goal could be enough to see off the Tractor Boys.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: BATE Borisov 0, Chelsea 1.