With barely any rest, multiple injuries, a six-hour cross-continental flight, and a day of preparations, Chelsea were not exactly expected to be at their best against Azerbaijani champions Qarabag, who had produced two strong performances on home soil in their previous Champions League group games. But aided by a bit of early luck, a key refereeing decision, and some strong attacking play, Chelsea waltzed to a 4-0 win to clinch a spot in the last 16 of this year’s Champions League.
The first meeting between the two sides, back in September at Stamford Bridge, was not only Chelsea’s return to Europe’s premier competition after a year’s absence but Qarabag’s debut in the group stages as well. The 6-0 win was a harsh welcome to the top table from the Blues, who were able to rotate in several players for that game.
While injuries to Victor Moses, Michy Batshuayi, Charly Musonda and Kenedy robbed Conte of a few options today, he still managed to rotate four players, with David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger coming at the back and Willian and Pedro getting the start alongside nominal center forward Eden Hazard. Morata was rested, while Conte was later able to withdraw Alonso, Hazard, and Kante as well.
Qarabag meanwhile went with their full strength 4-1-4-1 formation that had already seen them twice hold Atlético Madrid to a draw at their home stadium, and almost manage to upset AS Roma as well.
Both sides settled quickly, with Chelsea looking to possess the ball and Qarabag defending in numbers and looking to break, although neither gameplan was without fault. Chelsea were lacking a proper center forward to put pressure on the center backs inside the area, while the hosts had 10-men behind the ball leaving their lone striker Dino Ndlovu hopelessly isolated. And yet it was Qarabag who had the two best chances early, once thanks to an ill-advised turnover from David Zappacosta in the defensive third and the second where only the crossbar managed to keep the scores level.
The clang off the crossbar served as a wake-up call and Chelsea decided to start making their possession count. Qarabag clearly did not see the weekend’s game against West Brom, and like the Baggies, were leaving Chelsea’s midfielders wide open. It was only a matter of time before a telling ball would materialize, and when it did, from a roaming Eden Hazard from deep, Willian was onto it in a flash.
Qarabag captain Rasad Sadiqov produced just enough contact for Willian to lose his balance and fall down inside the penalty area. Once referee Manuel de Souza called the foul, he had no choice but to send off Sadiqov for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity as the last defender. The home team and the near-70,000 raucous fans in attendance were aghast, and for a moment it looked like we might have a revolution on our hands. Thankfully, it turned out that the Qarabag players were just taking on new instructions from their manager Gurban Gurbanov as they huddled on the sideline, before Eden calmly converted the spot kick to stake Chelsea to the early lead we all wanted.
Qarabag had looked a fairly solid team up to that point, but the red card took all that away and what followed was complete domination from Chelsea.
Nothing epitomized that more than Chelsea’s second goal, which played to the strengths of having three small forwards rather than one big central striker spearheading the attack. The move started, unsurprisingly, at the feet of Cesc Fabregas, before the front trio all combined in a stellar sequence of one- and two-touch football.
Pedro could’ve added a third (or at least won a penalty) before half-time, but instead drew a save from Sehic after running past half the defence. Strong commitment from Pedro even as the rest of the team looked to put things into cruise mode.
The second half started the same as the first ended, with Pedro wasting a great chance created by Fabregas, and Chelsea then taking their effort down a notch and inviting the hosts for a friendly training exercise. Qarabag seemed just as happy to oblige and nothing much happened for the next 20 minutes. Conte did take advantage of the opportunity to make it a short day for Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard, who were both replaced around the hour-mark by Gary Cahill and Alvaro Morata, respectively, with Danny Drinkwater following soon after for N’Golo Kante.
By then, Chelsea’s lead was three, with Willian winning (a much clearer) penalty this time on a clear shirt-pull in full view of the referee and Cesc Fabregas converting on the second asking after the first successful take was ruled out for encroachment.
Willian had now had a hand in all three goals, and he continued working until the very last minute.
There were no prizes for guessing who would get a fourth for Chelsea, although in fairness Morata had a hat-trick of good chances to get his name on the scoresheet as well. Instead, it was Willian who picked up a layoff from Pedro to blast in from range.
And so, Chelsea not only clinch a spot in the knockout round but end up doing it in some style, making it an even 10 goals scored against Qarabag in the two games.
With Atletico coming to life in the late game in the group as well and beating Roma 2-0, Chelsea are now back on top of the group and could advance as group winners by beating Atletico in a fortnight. Diego Simeone’s side will be motivated as well since they could conceivably still make the knockout round with a win and if Roma manage to somehow lose to Qarabag.
For now, it’s time to turn attentions to the big game against Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday.
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