Willian gets dominant Chelsea off to winning start against PAOK

Sachin Nakrani at the Toumba Stadium, Thessaloniki on 20 September 2018

There were flares, smoke bombs, furious chanting and no Eden Hazard for Chelsea to deal with but ultimately it was a case of job done as they got their Europa League campaign off to a winning start on a warm and wild night in northern Greece.

If this was meant to be a case of wandering into the lion’s den for Maurizio Sarri’s men then they departed with barely a scratch on them, with the only negatives to stew on being their lack of ruthlessness following Willian’s early goal and the injury sustained late on by Pedro.

The Spaniard could be seen walking off the pitch in stoppage time with a suspected dislocated left shoulder which would certainly rule him out of playing against West Ham on Sunday as Chelsea look to make it six successive wins in the Premier League. But Hazard could be back by then, having not been part of the squad Sarri selected to face PAOK after complaining of tiredness. Overall, the picture looks rosy for Chelsea in these early stages of life under another new manager.

A side also lacking David Luiz and Mateo Kovacic were utterly dominant against opponents who, before kick-off, would have fancied their chances of winning. After all PAOK finished second in Greece’s Super League last season, as well as winning the Greek Cup, and came into this Group L encounter having won all three of their domestic fixtures so far this campaign. But they barely landed a punch on their opponents, creating just four shots on goal compared to Chelsea’s 22 as well as giving up 68% of possession.

“We were in control for 90 minutes,” Sarri said, having described Pedro’s shoulder injury as “not very serious”. He added: “I am really very happy with the three points and the performance but I am not happy with the result. When it is time to kill the match we have to kill the match.”

The manager was right to lament Chelsea’s failure to score more here, with no one more guilty of wastefulness than Álvaro Morata. The Spaniard could have had a hat-trick in the first half alone, with his first miss the most glaring, a close-range header from Davide Zappacosta’s 10th-minute cross that he sent wide of the near post. That the 25-year-old was eventually replaced by Olivier Giroud would have come as no surprise to most of those in attendance.

Marcos Alonso was among the visiting players who should have also scored but in the end it did not matter given the composure Willian showed after seven minutes. Having collected Ross Barkley’s pass at the end of well-constructed move, the Brazilian, captaining Chelsea for the first time in a competitive game and outstanding throughout, drove into the right channel of PAOK’s area. He slotted the ball underneath the onrushing Alexandros Paschalakis and handed Chelsea the lead and, in the process, temporarily silencing a crowd that, to paraphrase Spinal Tap, had turned the volume up to 11.

PAOK’s supporters have earned a reputation in recent years for giving visitors to this 29,000-seater venue a hostile welcome and they did not disappoint. The noise built gradually before kick-off and then, as the players came out, the stand behind one goal and which contains the club’s ultras well and truly came alive. It was a fireworks display and a light show rolled into one as flames shone and smoke bellowed into the air, with the chanting emanating from a now largely topless group of people deafening.

Chelsea’s modest group of supporters could only look on from the other side of the ground and may well have found it disconcerting to see an ambulance and fire engine parked in front of them. Rumours that some of their fellow fans had been attacked with knives as they made their way here would hardly have helped matters, nor, probably, the sight of Chelsea’s chairman, Bruce Buck, handing out free packets of crisps to those who had travelled from London and elsewhere.

But it was they who left here celebrating as Chelsea’s players delivered another display that suggests they are already fully up to speed with “Sarri-ball”. The pressing was relentless and aggressive, the passing quick and direct, the movement too much for PAOK to handle.

Razvan Lucescu’s side enjoyed a spell of pressure late on, which included a shot from the substitute Diego Biseswar that was PAOK’s only one on target, but overall the hosts were well beaten by the better side. That their supporters could be heard chanting and letting off flares long after the final whistle had blown was, in the end, neither here or there.

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