Chelsea eased to a 3-0 victory over Dynamo Kiev to all-but book their passage into the Europa League quarter-finals. We assess the talking points from Thursday night’s Stamford Bridge cruise.
The phoney war is almost over
It’s quite a slog to reach the business end of the Europa League – even if the standard required to progress is ridiculously easy for the strongest clubs – but Chelsea are good to go.
There was a time when opposition like Dynamo Kiev might offer quite a test for an ambitious team, but they were brushed aside ridiculously easily by Chelsea on Thursday night. It was always just a question of how big a lead the Blues would accumulate to take to the Ukraine next week.
It needed the gloss of Callum Hudson-Odoi’s late goal to make the scoreline a truer reflection of what had gone before but a 3-0 lead looks more than enough to guarantee a quarter-final slot.
So after a trawl through the footballing backwaters of Belarus, Hungary, Greece and Sweden, they can finally start sharpening their tools for a contest against proper contenders.
So who stands in their way now?
The Spanish and Italians look to be gathering and given the complete dominance of clubs from Spain in recent seasons, it is obvious they will be the ones most likely to deny Chelsea a second Europa League trophy in six years.
They have won four of the five editions since Chelsea beat Benfica in Amsterdam under Rafa Benitez in 2013, with Atletico Madrid taking over as champions from Man United, following three wins in a row for Sevilla. Nine of the last 15 competitions have been won by Spanish sides.
There could be three La Liga sides in the last eight this time around, although Sevilla have work to do, having been held to a 2-2 draw by Slavia Prague in their home leg, while Valencia only eked out a 2-1 lead to take to Russia for their second leg against FK Krasnodar. Villareal look home and hosed after a 3-1 win at Zenit.
There look like being two Italian sides, as Napoli were 3-0 winners over Red Bull Salzburg and Inter drew 0-0 at Eintracht Frankfurt. The other two places could go to Arsenal and Benfica, though both have to overcome first leg deficits. The last eight line-up looks more testing, though not daunting.
Chelsea don’t need Eden Hazard in order to stroll through most Europa League games
The Belgian was afforded a much-needed rest, staying on the bench and restricting his evening’s work to a few touchline warm-ups. At times, Maurizio Sarri has been over-reliant on the brilliant Belgian, but against opposition who made even Davide Zappacosta look dangerous, he was not needed. Chelsea also need to devise plans for when he does not play to give them a measure of tactical flexibility – a feature which has been largely absent this season.
The same could be said for Kepa
OK, so Kepa is young and it was not exactly a taxing night for him, but given his recent brush with management, maybe it would have been another useful reminder to him of who is in charge had he been left out. Besides, Willy Caballero needs a few more minutes under his belt to keep sharp in case something happens to Kepa. Maybe he also deserves a reward for his professional demeanour during the Wembley fiasco when Chelsea’s number one refused to come off. Caballero has started just four times since the turn of the year, twice in the FA Cup and once in the league, keeping clean sheets on every occasion.
Not playing Giroud enough has harmed his sharpness
Fifteen players have made more starts this season for Chelsea than Olivier Giroud and the French World Cup winner is starting to look as if he is fading away. There was a lovely little back heel to set up Pedro for the opening goal but the former Arsenal man did not have an impressive night against Kiev. He has never been fast, but he is looking less mobile than before and was surprisingly robbed of the ball quite a few times. At 32, it would wrong to expect improvements but with Gonzalo Higuain having come into the picture, chances will become even rarer to halt an apparent decline.
Callum must be worth a shot in the Premier League
Yes, Sarri is right that he is still only 18 and needs to be given time to learn his trade, but Hudson-Odoi is surely not far off making that first Premier League start. He waltzed on as a late sub and confidently bagged his fourth goal of the season – albeit against tiring opposition. The fans are crying out to see more from him and although a role as impact-sub is fine for now, the odd start between now and May would surely benefit club and player. Whatever his future - Chelsea are reluctant to sanction his transfer request because an embargo could restrict the arrival of new players in forthcoming transfer windows – everyone gains if he plays.