At last, Chelsea are back in Europe, returning as Premier League champions looking to win the competition for the second time. That first win in 2012 was a watershed moment for the club, exorcising the demons of the 2008 final and completing the first phase of Abramovich’s grand project. Chelsea have more or less been in a rebuilding phase even since, a task that seems to finally be coming to fruition under Antonio Conte (even as Chelsea have gone on to win the league twice more since that famous night in Munich), with Conte himself looking to lift the “Big Ears” for the first time as head coach.
The first step in that journey is a home game against Qarabag FK, the five-time Champions of Azerbaijan (including four in a row) making their first appearance in the Champions League group stage after successfully navigating no fewer than three rounds of qualification. They beat Samtredia, Sheriff Tiraspol, and FC Copenhagen for the privilege to be the minnows of Group C alongside the big names of Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, and AS Roma.
Unless Chelsea decide to make it hard on ourselves — certainly not beyond the real of possibilities — we should be able to come out on top of this encounter relatively easily and start the competition off right with three important points before having to travel to Madrid in a fortnight.
Date / Time: Tuesday, September 12, 19:45 BST; 2:45pm EDT; 12:15am IST (next day)
Venue: Stamford Bridge, SW6
Referee: Anastasios Sidiropoulos, a 38-year-old Greek referee who joined FIFA's ranks in 2011. This will be his first game at Stamford Bridge and tenth overall in the Champions League proper, one of which includes Arsenal's 5-1 loss at home to Bayern Munich in last year’s Round of 16.
Forecast: Light clouds at kick-off, with chance of a light drizzle before the end of the match.
On TV: BT Sport ESPN (UK); FOX Sports regional networks & local affiliates (USA); Sony TEN 3 (India); elsewhere
Streaming online: BT Sport Live (UK); FOX Soccer Match Pass, FOX Sports GO, WatchESPN (USA); Sony LIV (India)
Chelsea team news: Weak(er) Champions League opponents generally provide opportunities for coaches to experiment with line-ups and offer playing time to fringe players and youngsters. Even Antonio Conte, who isn’t exactly known for constant squad rotation, has hinted at putting the backups to work in this one.
Chelsea’s starting lineup could thus feature several new faces, including veteran goalkeeper Wilfredo Caballero and youngster Charly Musonda Jr. Conte has confirmed that both Eden Hazard and Álvaro Morata will only have watching briefs, at least at the start, but new arrival Danny Drinkwater won’t even get to do that having picked up an injury in training. Meanwhile club captain Gary Cahill, who’s missed the last three league games due to suspension will be making his return.
“I’m delighted to be back and available for selection. It was a disappointing first game for me but that’s in the past and now I’m itching to play, and looking forward to getting back involved with the squad.”
-Gary Cahill; source: Chelsea FC
Projected lineup (3-4-3): Caballero | Cahill, Christensen, Azpilicueta | Kenedy, Bakayoko, Fàbregas, Zappacosta | Musonda Jr, Batshuayi, Willian
Qarabag team news: Lead by the efforts of Azerbaijani football legend Gurban Gurbanov in the managerial seat and South African striker Dino Ndlovu on the pitch, Qarabag are apparently used to dominating teams with their possession-oriented playing style (the Barcelona of the Caucasus!) in Azerbaijan's top league. Whether that translates to anything of substance in the Champions League remains to be seen, but hopefully Chelsea don’t give them even a sniff of any such opportunity.
Perhaps the most recognizable name in their squad is former Birmingham City benchwarmer Míchel, who once watched in amazement from the dugout as the wrong Blues emerged triumphant, 1-0, in November 2010 during what was just the start of Carlo Ancelotti’s “bad moment” in his second season in charge. Qarabag also count Willian’s former teammate, then Shakhtar backup goalkeeper Anton Kanibolotskiy amongst their numbers, while deadline day loan signing Tarik Elyounoussi from Olympiacos should be a familiar name to fans of the Norwegian national team (or players of Football Manager).
Qarabag have lost just one competitive match since February, the 2-1 second leg away defeat to FC Copenhagen a couple weeks ago (they still advanced on away goals).
Previously: This will be the first encounter between Chelsea and Qarabag in their history. Chelsea’s last game in the Champions League was a 2-1 home loss to PSG in March of 2016 — only the seventh home loss Chelsea had suffered in 67 Champions League home games in the Abramovich era (43-17-7).