Winners of the Europa League as recently as 2013, a perfect four-game start to the 2018/19 Premier League season has seen Chelsea’s stock rise after a poor 2017/18 campaign that saw thirteen league defeats.
While the Europa League gives Chelsea a double shot of regaining their place in the Promised Land, the amount of respect Mauricio Sarri gives this competition remains to be seen.
PAOK have only lost at home on two other occasions this calendar year. While that in itself is impressive to a finite degree, the fact that those home defeats to nil came against two of their peers in the top three indicates that there is a psychological block at inopportune times.
Adding to the fact that Chelsea are three weeks fitter than PAOK, this should be a stroll in Thessaloniki. However, a full-strength starting XI, with the possible exception of Hazard and Alonso, is an absolute must.
Chelsea win the Europa League in 2013.
Barkley one to watch
The fact that current football betting odds for the Europa League deem Chelsea as one of the Europa League frontrunners will add pressure on Sarri’s men, but it is nothing they aren’t accustomed to.
Yet, if Sarri truly does want his Chelsea side to flourish, and make good on their status as one of the outright favourites, then underestimating PAOK on the first matchday would be foolish in the extreme.
PAOK were recent 4-1 losers at home to Benfica in the Champions League playoff round, but showed their credentials to take on stronger opposition, escaping the Estadio da Luz with a 1-1 draw in the first leg.
One Chelsea player aiming to finally establish himself as a threat to the ultra-competitive Chelsea midfield is Ross Barkley.
With the ex-Evertonian only ever completing 90 minutes for Chelsea in the Community Shield, the opening matchday is a personal ‘do or die’ scenario for the man who once made marauding runs and scored spectacular goals for his old club.
With Sarri playing a 4-3-3 to good effect in the league thus far, Barkley’s natural role as a number ten is ill-fitted to the usual setup, and thus his true versatility as a professional could be tested to the limit in this Europa League match if he plays the full 90.
The men from Thessaloniki will likely stay true to that which has worked. When faced with an in-form Chelsea side, dropping deep will do nothing.
PAOK will be expected to attack and go for the first goal, while then shutting up shop and doing everything possible to hurt Chelsea. Greek top-flight games often throw up a much higher average number of red cards, and PAOK ending the night with ten men is a potentially shrewd outcome to back as desperation seeps in – as surely it will, whether PAOK are winning or losing in the latter stages.
The hosts’ most dangerous player is unquestionably Vierinha, who was plying his trade in the Bundesliga – with a title-contending Wolfsburg – as recently as 2014.
The Portuguese attacker’s ability to play off point striker Aleksandar Prijovic is one of several reasons that PAOK were able to finish second in the 2017-18 Greek Super League, and fall just six points shy of the club’s first title since 1985.
Prediction: We’re going for a straightforward 2-0 Chelsea win, with bet365 currently offering 15/4 on any winning margin of exactly two goals.