A Bridge too far

Chelsea pro­vide re­al­ity check for Qarabag

The Guardian - Sport - - Front Page - Do­minic Fi­field Stam­ford Bridge

Chelsea 6

Pe­dro 5, Zap­pa­costa 30, Azpilicueta 55, Bakayoko 71, Bat­shuayi 76, Medvedev 82og

Qarabag 0

An­to­nio Conte had en­tered Septem­ber wary of a treach­er­ous and clut­tered sched­ule, Chelsea’s head coach braced to chop and change his lineup in the hope of ne­go­ti­at­ing suc­cess­ful pas­sage through seven games in 21 days. That work-load, he feared, would stretch his squad to the limit. As it tran­spired, his team’s re­turn to Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion will not have sapped en­ergy lev­els in the slight­est. Their re­union with the Cham­pi­ons League was a stroll.

Qarabag were dis­missed here, the home side eas­ing back into life at this level with six goals to savour. Atletico Madrid and AS Roma will of­fer far sterner tests than this, but Conte must have re­joiced in the abil­ity to rest Al­varo Mo­rata and David Luiz, and haul off Ce­sar Azpilicueta, Pe­dro and N’Golo Kanté, while his team ran riot.

This was Qarabag’s de­but in this com­pe­ti­tion and, what­ever the club once from the war-torn city of Agh­dam but now ex­iled in Baku achieve this sea­son, their progress to this stage will al­ways rank as re­mark­able. Yet they col­lided here with a team still stung by one year’s non­in­volve­ment among the elite and over­seen by a head coach who has much still to achieve in the Cham­pi­ons League, with the out­come rather chas­ten­ing.

The Azer­bai­jan club, with their sprin­kling of Brazil­ian, Haitian, Span­ish and South African at­tack­ing tal­ent, were over­whelmed de­fen­sively from the out­set as Chelsea swarmed for­ward. The en­ergy lev­els were main­tained through a one-sided first pe­riod. The tie felt set­tled with the shrill of the half-time whis­tle.

It was on the flanks where the hosts were at their ram­pant best. Wil­lian tore into Jakub Rzezniczak and Wilde-Don­ald Guer­rier, with Pe­dro just as ef­fer­ves­cent on the op­po­site wing. Cesc Fàbre­gas prompted from the cen­tre, Kanté was his cus­tom­ary blur of en­ergy, while both wing-backs sprinted into en­emy ter­ri­tory with glee.

This was Da­vide Zap­pa­costa’s home de­but but, al­ready, he ap­pears a smart ad­di­tion. The Ital­ian would have his mo­ment on the half-hour but, by then, the home side were ahead and threat­en­ing to run up a cricket score. They had eased them­selves into the lead early while Qarabag play­ers were still wheez­ing at the fe­roc­ity of the ini­tial on­slaught. Rashad Sady­gov had al­ready been forced to block from Alonso when, from the re­sul­tant short cor­ner, Wil­lian clipped a pass to the edge of the area. There lurked the un­marked Pe­dro whose vi­cious shot, curled first time, flew into the net via the div­ing Ibrahim Se­hic’s touch.

The goal­keeper did well to deny Wil­lian a sec­ond, but there was a vul­ner­a­bil­ity to the vis­i­tors’ back-line that was al­ways go­ing to be pun­ished. Sure enough, Zap­pa­costa col­lected from Thibaut Cour­tois deep in­side his own half, burst be­yond two re­treat­ing op­po­nents on the touch­line and, hav­ing glanced to­wards the cen­tre to spy a team-mate, flung over an at­tempted cross that veered over the un­sus­pect­ing Se­hic. The goal­keeper had taken a step off his line in an­tic­i­pa­tion of col­lect­ing a cross, but the ball ended up fly­ing over his dive and into the far cor­ner. Zap­pa­costa cel­e­brated with gusto and Chelsea al­ready felt out of sight.

There had been only flashes of at­tack­ing in­tent from Gur­ban Gur­banov’s side, usu­ally sparked by Pe­dro Hen­rique or, oc­ca­sion­ally, the ea­ger run­ning of the lone striker Dino Ndlovu. Yet the more po­tent threat was al­ways Chelsea’s, even with Al­varo Mo­rata rest­ing up on the bench and Eden Haz­ard im­pa­tiently pound­ing the touch­line as he waited to be in­tro­duced.

The Bel­gian en­tered the fray once the lead had been fur­ther ex­tended, Fàbre­gas col­lect­ing Wil­lian’s short free-kick and ex­ploit­ing Gara Garayev’s hes­i­tancy to curl over a cen­tre with the out­side of his right foot. Azpilicueta, free on the edge of the six-yard box, guided home a header.

This had long since be­come a stroll, the vis­i­tors’ com­po­sure hav­ing drained and panic grip­ping. Wil­lian whipped a shot on to the cross­bar but each at­tack of­fered hope of re­ward. There were still 19 min­utes re­main­ing when Haz­ard crossed into a clut­tered six-yard box where Michel and Ba­davi Huseynov rather cramped each other’s style, the ball re­bound­ing from the Spa­niard and into Tiemoue Bakayoko’s path. The sub­sti­tute, only just in­tro­duced, slammed a first Chelsea goal in from close-range.

What the hosts had been miss­ing was a goal for Michy Bat­shuayi. When his chance came, cour­tesy of Mak­sim Medvedev’s slack pass and Bakayoko’s in­ter­cep­tion, he took it with aplomb, skim­ming a shot be­yond Se­hic from just out­side the penalty area.

The Bel­gian was in­volved in an­other soon af­ter when Medvedev scored an own goal, where­upon Chelsea mer­ci­fully de­clared.

Cather­ine Ivill/AMA/Getty Im­ages

Da­vide Zap­pa­costa cel­e­brates his goal with Wil­lian as Chelsea gave Qarabag – the first Azer­bai­jan team to play in the Cham­pi­ons League – a rude awak­en­ing with six goals in their Group C opener

César Azpilicueta cel­e­brates scor­ing Chelsea’s third goal against Qarabag

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