Chelsea will be looking to put behind their Manchester City battering and gear up for the first leg Round of 32 tie against Malmo FF in the Europa League.
Malmo FF made it through at the expense of their group favourites Besiktas in what was a dramatic last round of the Group Stage. In a straight showdown against Benfica, who needed to avoid a defeat, Malmo snatched an early second half-lead and secured the three points along with a passage into the knockout phase of the UEFA Europa League.
Chelsea’s journey has been comfortable, to say the least. While the scorelines have not been as pleasing, the Blues have hardly felt troubled at the prospect of not being able to qualify or even top their group. But, the start of the knockout phase is perhaps, at the worst timing possible.
The first leg on the road comes on the back of a 6-0 battering received at the hands of Manchester City in the Premier League at Etihad, a result that saw them slip to sixth on the table. Given their jaggery form of late, the result was half-expected; the scoreline wasn’t.
UEFA Europa League could provide respite to Maurizio Sarri, who has come under fire, with his job not really safe, according to various reports. But, away ties can be deceptively troublesome, especially when it is against an opposition there is little information about.
To add to it, Sarri will also be wary of the Monday night FA Cup fixture against Manchester United, who themselves lost 2-0 to PSG in what was their first defeat under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. We take a closer look at the two squads.
Team News & Tactics
Lasse Nielsen and Rasmus Bengtsson were the best performers for Malmo over the Group Stage of the UEFA Europa League and the duo should be an automatic choice in the back three, with Behrang Safari likely to complete the backline. Johan Dahlin is the first-choice goalkeeper and should start on Thursday.
Malmo feel comfortable in a 3-5-2 setup, which should be how they line up against Chelsea. The defensive midfield pairing of Oscar Lewicki and Fouad Bachirou will be key to keeping Chelsea quiet. Anders Christiansen should be the other central midfielder, with Andreas Vindheim and Soren Rieks the likely wing-backs.
Marcus Antonsson is Malmo’s leading goalscorer, with 3 strikes in the group stage and should start upfront alongside the veteran Markus Rosenberg.
Probable Lineup (3-5-2): Dahlin; Nielsen, Bengtsson, Safari; Vindheim, Lewicki, Christiansen, Bachirou, Rieks; Rosenberg, Antonsson
While there will be changes expected for the Europa League fixture, Maurizio Sarri will be wary of making too many, especially with a result on Thursday necessary to gather momentum and bounce back from the Manchester City mauling. Still, the back four should see a major makeover, with Andreas Christensen and Gary Cahill coming in at centre-back.
Emerson Palmieri has somewhat impressed and could lay claim for a start against Manchester United on Monday night, with a good performance against Malmo. There has been rumours of a rift between the manager and certain key players. But, Cesar Azpilicueta should start on Thursday regardless.
Ethan Ampadu and Mateo Kovacic should come into the midfield, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek likely to complete the trident. Gonzalo Higuain could be handed his first Europa League start as a Chelsea player, with Willian likely on one of the wings and Callum Hudson-Odoi on the other.
The youngster has been ignored in recent matches but should be in the starting eleven on Thursday.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Christensen, Emerson; Loftus-Cheek, Ampadu, Kovacic; Willian, Higuain, Hudson-Odoi
1. All of Malmo’s goals so far in the Europa League this season (7) have come in the second half.
2. The two teams have never met each other before in a competitive match.
3. Chelsea are unbeaten against Swedish opposition in four games and come into the knockout phase after an unbeaten Group Stage campaign.
4. Chelsea have conceded a total of 12 goals in their last 3 away games in all competitions, with nothing in response.
5. Olivier Giroud has four goals in his last three Europa League appearances.
Player to Watch
Maurizio Sarri is unlikely to be happy with his centre-backs after the recent displays against the top sides. Andreas Christensen should start on Thursday in what could be a real chance for the towering Dane to stake a claim to be a regular from now until the end of the season.
Christensen has performed whenever selected and should he put in a strong shift against Malmo, Sarri might be tempted to put the Dane in for the FA Cup tie against Manchester United.
Malmo FF 1-2 Chelsea
Chelsea could struggle against the Swedes, who are giants in their own domestic region. The Blues seem off recently and Maurizio Sarri has looked clueless as to what could improve their fortunes or stamp his play style in a better way.
Malmo will be looking to exploit the defensive changes and are likely to do well to score, at least on Thursday. But, we expect Gonzalo Higuain and Callum Hudson-Odoi to do enough to hand Chelsea an advantage going into the second leg. We are going with Chelsea to win with a narrow scoreline.