Chelsea took a big step towards progressing to the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League as they beat Slavia Praha 1-0 in the quarter-final first leg on Thursday.
It was Slavia Praha who threatened to score first as Simon Deli headed wide from a set-piece sequence early on. Chelsea though, settled into their rhythm thereafter and starting dominating the possession game, albeit without creating much.
The Blues did come close to scoring when Willian struck the bar, but apart from that moment, the first half was largely a sordid affair, with neither side looking particularly threatening. Post the break, Chelsea upped the intensity, with Olivier Giroud and Antonio Rudiger coming close to finding the back of the net.
On the opposite end, Kepa Arrizabalaga made a fine stop to deny Ibrahim Traore. Chelsea though, would have the last laugh, as Marcos Alonso scored from Willian’s beautiful, precise cross to ensure his side grabbed an away goal. The Hard Tackle now runs the rule over Ernesto Valverde’s men.
Kepa Arrizabalaga: 7/10
A strange outing for Kepa, who was alert to any threat that Slavia Praha posed. In fact, the Spaniard made a couple of stunning saves to deny the hosts. But, he was found wanting when it came to collecting the ball, as his preference to punch it away instead of catching it put Chelsea under undue pressure.
Cesar Azpilicueta: 7/10
Azpilicueta was a surprise starter, with rest continuing to evade him. But, the Chelsea skipper kept the backline organised smartly, and defended diligently against whatever threat came his way. Ought to have done better in the final third, but that was a rare negative in a solid outing.
Andreas Christensen: 6/10
Back into the side in place of David Luiz, Christensen had the chance to show Sarri why he must be afforded more game time. The Dane was solid for the most part, but his rustiness was quite evident on the night as well. The talent is there to be exploited, but it remains to be seen what the Chelsea boss does about it.
Antonio Rudiger: 8/10
It has been a hit and miss sort of a season for Rudiger. On Thursday, however, it was all hit for the German, who was in his elements at the heart of the Chelsea defence, which did not concede many opportunities. Can consider himself unlucky to have narrowly avoided scoring a goal with the score still at 0-0.
Marcos Alonso: 7/10
Back into the side after regaining full fitness, Alonso looked a bit off pace at the back, but was also a constant outlet when the Blues drove ahead. More or less solid at the back for the most part after the initial sluggishness. Finished the game on a strong note, capping off a decent performance with a goal that ended a well-timed run into the box.
Ross Barkley: 5/10
Back into the starting lineup, Barkley had the chance to show Sarri that he can go head to head with Ruben Loftus-Cheek for the third midfielder’s role. But, he ended up missing his opportunity. While he was a willing worker on the defensive front, the Englishman offered nothing going forward, which is where most of his frustrations lie. Needs to improve considerably.
It was a game of two halves for Jorginho who struggled to impose himself in the first half but was the catalyst of Chelsea’s domination post the break, pulling the strings from the middle of the park. Barely a factor defensively, which is an issue he needs to address.
Mateo Kovacic: 5/10
Another player who was handed a chance to impress, but ended up squandering it. Kovacic was supposed to be one of the creative forces for Chelsea in midfield. But, disappointingly, he ended up picking the safer option more often than not. A switch has been turned off recently, one that he needs to turn on, if he is to end his loan stint on a high.
With Hudson-Odoi rested, Pedro had the opportunity to stake a claim for getting his place back. But, he could not impact the game in the slightest, and could never quite get into dangerous positions to make an impact. Worked hard off the ball, but that was about it as far as positives were concerned.
Olivier Giroud: 6/10
Mr. Reliable for Chelsea in the Europa League this season, Giroud has been the go-to guy for Sarri. But, on Thursday, a lack of good quality service meant he cut a lonely, isolated figure for the most part on the night. A frustrating outing.
Willian has, more often than not, been the attacking leader for Chelsea in the competition, and he was in his elements against Slavia Praha as well. All throughout, the Brazilian looked like the biggest threat for Chelsea and would consider himself unlucky to be denied by the woodwork.
Eventually though, it was Willian who ended up having a direct hand in the win, as his wonderfully floated cross met Marcos Alonso, who made no mistake in scoring the winner. In this form, he is simply delightful.
Eden Hazard: 6/10
With Chelsea struggling to get a goal, Hazard was introduced to make a difference. His confidence on the ball rubbed off on his teammates as the Blues finally found the winning goal.
N’Golo Kante: 6/10
On for Kovacic, a fresh Kante helped see the game out comfortably.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek: N/A
Loftus-Cheek replaced Barkley and created a solid tandem with Kante and Jorginho, which helped impose stability in midfield in the final 15 minutes.