Chelsea kick off their Europa League group campaign on Thursday night, following on from last season’s disastrous finish to the league campaign. The Blues slumped to fifth under Antonio Conte, but five games into the new season and Maurizio Sarri has already raised expectations around Stamford Bridge. The Blues are hoping to secure Champions League football at the very minimum this season, but could they end the campaign with European silverware and gain entry into the Champions League regardless of their domestic performances?
With a competitive race for the top four likely in England, the Blues can’t quite afford to dispense with this competition entirely, given that the winner claims an automatic place in next season’s Champions League. Sarri is still waiting to land major silverware as a manager, and he’s leading the Blues into a competition where they’re among the biggest sides to feature. Ahead of the Blues’ meeting with Greek side PAOK in the Europa League, they may want to consider their chances of winning the trophy. The bookies certainly think they have a chance, with Chelsea currently the outright favourites.
Team News: Sarri Set For European Changes
The Blues aren’t likely to take the Europa League too seriously from the off, with changes likely to be made. Even with a much thinner squad, Sarri had a habit of rotating in Europe last term. He wrote off the Champions League so that Napoli would be fresh for their Serie A title chase. With Chelsea making a perfect start to the new league season, expect that to lead to changes in Thursday’s visit to Greece.
Following his weekend hat-trick, Eden Hazard is set to be rested in this one. The Belgian is among the top players in the world, so the Europa League isn’t really for him anymore. However, he could cause a world of problems for players at this level if he were to feature. The Blues have lost Ruben Loftus-Cheek to injury ahead of a game he would have featured in, which could allow Ethan Ampadu to feature. Sarri is likely to switch the majority of the squad, with Willy Caballero set to start in goal.
PAOK aren’t set to make drastic changes like the visitors. They come here with one issue, with Leo Matos picking up a ban during their Champions League qualifying campaign. That rules the right-back out for this clash, but otherwise the Greek side are at full strength. They’re set to go with their strongest line-up, which doesn’t feature many names familiar to English football fans.
PAOK have enjoyed a solid start to the new season, with seven points from their opening three games. They were victors at the weekend, claiming a 3-1 win over OFI on Saturday. They’ll be hoping to take their good domestic form into the Europa League, but they’ve also made some strides in Europe already this season.
The Greek outfit had made a push for the Champions League group stage this season, and they came quite close. They drew 1-1 in their first leg visit to Benfica, and they were ahead against the Portuguese side in the second. However, the Eagles roared back to claim a 4-1 victory in the last European game here, which dumped PAOK out of the Champions League, and into this competition. That run came after they knocked out Basel and Spartak Moscow in the preliminary stages of Europe’s top tier tournament, so the hosts deserve some credit for their recent form in Europe and should not be taken too lightly.
- Both teams to score – 4/5 with bet365
- Alvaro Morata to score – 13/8 with Ladbrokes
The Blues aren’t bad value here, coming into this clash priced at 20/23 with Coral. They meet a PAOK side who are priced at 16/5 with BetVictor to win at home, while you can find the draw at 27/11 with Ladbrokes. That suggests this is set to be an evenly matched clash. The wholesale changes to the Chelsea side and the fact that the Premier League team are away from home does balance the scales here, but can they still come away with three points in spite of that disadvantage?
The Blues are 6/1 favourites with Betfair to win the Europa League this season, so their second string squad will be expected to kick on and get a result. They face a difficult trip on Thursday night, as the Blues play their first game in this competition since beating Benfica in the final back in 2013. That success is something they could emulate this time around, but they’re likely to start with some weakened sides early on, which does give the hosts a chance to cause a shock.
We think PAOK will fancy their chances at scoring against a rotated Chelsea defence. So far, David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger have been the go-to partnership for Sarri in central defence. This game should see chances handed out to Andreas Christensen and Gary Cahill, although that pair could be rusty. We expect to see them challenged by a PAOK side who found the net in all of their home Champions League qualifiers this summer. The hosts have also scored in four of their last five matches in this competition, so they have the talent to cause problems. The Blues will remain strong up front, but with potential vulnerabilities in defence we’re tipping both teams to score here, which can be found at 4/5 with bet365.
Chelsea’s changes will still see their most expensive striker starting up top. Olivier Giroud had a hand in Hazard’s brilliance on Saturday, so the rotation policy for the Europa League should give Alvaro Morata a game. This competition is his chance to impress, and he has a solid European record behind him. We expect the Spaniard to make an impact in the Europa League this term, especially against a side like PAOK. At 13/8 with Ladbrokes to score any time, Morata seems like great value here.