Here comes the first test in Europe for Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri, and it should be an interesting night against Pan-Thessalonian Athletic Club of Constantinopolitans, i.e. PAOK.
For one thing, the match is in Thessaloniki, and the local
pyromaniacs fans can be rather, shall we say, enthusiastic. For another, Toumba Stadium is a tight bowl, which makes for an intimate atmosphere even with its capacity reduced from 45,000 to 29,000 due to contrivances such as seats, security zones, and camera positions. And finally, it was here that six months ago, club president Ivan Savvidis made headlines around the world when he invaded the pitch packing a pistol after a PAOK goal was disallowed in a crucial match against AEK Athens, who later won the league title. Savvidis has promised to be on his best behavior, but the point is that this has the potential to have a volatile atmosphere.
It could turn into a baptism by (literal?) fire if Sarri elects to field a team of youngsters and substitutes, as expected. In Greek football PAOK are no mugs, consistently one of the top four clubs, and one of the few outside of Athens to truly matter. They won the Greek Cup last season, for the sixth time (in 19 finals), and were fighting for the league until that controversial game against AEK, ultimately finishing second.
It seems unlikely to be a dull affair, even with the relatively early kick-off.
Date / Time: Thursday, September 20, 2018, 17:55 BST; 12:55pm EDT; 10:25pm IST
Venue: Toumba Stadium, Thessaloniki, Greece
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco — one of Spain’s top referees, he worked the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He has Chelsea history, too. In 2009 he missed a Didier Drogba free kick that appeared to cross the goal line in a fiery Champions League 2-2 draw with Juventus in the Round of 16, and in 2011 he refused to award Ancelotti’s Chelsea two penalties in a 1-0 home loss to Manchester United in the quarterfinals. He also took charge of Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv three years ago that’s remembered for nothing controversial (and thus not remembered at all).
Forecast: Sunny and pleasant, if a bit humid during the day, with temperatures in the mid-20s, cooling off a little bit towards game-time and into the night.
On TV: BT Sport 2 (UK); UniMás (USA); SONY TEN 2 (India); elsewhere — (in the US, TNT acquired the English-language rights to both the Champions League and the Europa League, but they’ve decided to actually show none of the latter competition on TV until the final itself, so all English-language broadcasts are online only with B/R Live)
PAOK team news: Striker Aleksandar Prijovic could be contention to start. He returned to training on Monday after straining a hamstring last week. He’s their big man for the big occasion, scoring four times during three rounds of Champions League qualifying play-offs, where they faced FC Basel, Spartak Moscow, and Benfica. The 28-year-old Serbian international was the team’s leading goalscorer last season with 27 strikes in just 36 appearances.
PAOK actually made it to within 90 minutes of qualifying for the Champions League proper before suffering a 4-1 home defeat to Benfica three weeks ago. They’ve won all three of their domestic league matches thus far and will be looking to exact revenge for that singular failing with a strong start to their Europa League campaign.
Fun fact: PAOK’s manager is 49-year-old Razvan Lucescu. That last name will sound familiar to at least one Chelsea player. Razvan’s father, Mircea, was the manager of Shakhtar Donetsk from 2004 to 2016, which included all of Willian’s 5.5 seasons there.
Bonus fun fact: PAOK’s director of football is former referee Lubos Michel, from Slovakia. That name might ring a bell: he was the man in charge of the Liverpool vs. Chelsea Champions League semifinal in 2005 that featured Luis Garcia’s “ghost goal”, and he was also the man in charge of the Champions League final three years later, where he sent off Didier Drogba in extra time. So much fun!
Chelsea team news: Just 21 players traveled to Greece, with Eden Hazard (rest), David Luiz (rest), Mateo Kovacic (knock), and Emerson (illness) staying behind to keep ineligible trio Danny Drinkwater, Rob Green, and Lucas Piazon company at Cobham. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Cesc Fabregas appear to have recovered from their respective injuries however, and could play a part in Sarri’s promised 4-5 player rotation. The head coach already confirmed a planned start for Alvaro Morata.
Since losing the Community Shield 2-0 to Manchester City (and it was not that close), Sarri’s Chelsea have improved game by game and currently sit at the top of the table on goal difference ahead of Liverpool. The Blues are far from a finished product, but the early signs are promising that Sarri could accomplish something meaningful during his time in charge.
Previously: There isn’t one. We’ve never played them before. PAOK will be Chelsea’s 182nd unique opponent, the 78th in European competition. Since there’s nothing to look back to, how about enjoying our 2013 Europa League final 2-1 win over Benfica instead?