Willian Goal Gives Chelsea Narrow Win vs. PAOK in 2018 Europa League

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2018

THESSALONIKI, GREECE - SEPTEMBER 20: Willian (C) celebrates after scoring the first goal for Chelsea during the UEFA Europa League Group L match between PAOK and Chelsea at Toumba Stadium on September 20, 2018 in Thessaloniki, Greece. (Photo by MB Media/Getty Images)
MB Media/Getty Images

Chelsea avoided a Greek tragedy in their trip to PAOK on Thursday and emerged 1-0 victors at the Toumba Stadium in Thessaloniki to start their UEFA Europa League campaign with a win and climb to second in Group L.

Willian side-footed home the breakthrough after only seven minutes to put the Blues ahead, and though the west London club never looked like losing their lead, they'll perhaps be disappointed not to have added to it.

The Blues had 21 shots at goal compared to the three mustered by their hosts, per WhoScored.com, to give Maurizio Sarri some bright hopes for his first European campaign in England.

BATE Borisov beat Vidi 2-0 in the other group fixture to move to the top of Group L, setting the stage for a tense encounter when the Belarusian outfit travel to face Chelsea on October 25.

        

Maurizio Sarri Signals Early Intent to Win Europa League

Five years after winning this tournament, Chelsea may be expected to walk a group comprising PAOK, BATE Borisov and Hungarian minnows Vidi, but the Europa League can often be a tightrope for bigger teams.

Not all managers in Sarri's position would treat Europe's second-tier competition with seriousness, but the Italian put out a strong selection lacking in youth to suggest he's not taking the tournament lightly.

Five changes were made to the team that started Saturday's 4-1 thumping of Cardiff City. Eden Hazard was one of those dropped, but the manager hinted even the Belgian talisman may have kept his place after a hat-trick against the Bluebirds were it not for tiredness, per ESPN:

Some will take it as a positive that Sarri seems vindicated in his efforts to beat PAOK, but others thought this might be the best opportunity for the club to test out prospects like Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi.

Author Mark Worrall took note of the public reaction to Sarri's selection and highlighted it was far from resoundingly positive:

Instead, Ampadu and Hudson-Odoi failed to even make the matchday squad in the end as Ross Barkley, Willian and Davide Zappacosta were among those drafted in:

That being said, even with their more experienced players, points weren't easy to come by, and it's likely the trip to Greece will be their most difficult match in Group L.

On top of that, it's not as though Sarri doesn't appear to know what he's doing at this stage of the competition:

It's an early source of debate for the Chelsea supporters, some of whom would rather see their youth more involved and run the risk of failing in pursuit of developing their own stars.

There will be further Europa League chances for Sarri to experiment should he see fit, but for now, early on in his Chelsea tenure, it appears winning is what matters most.

        

Willian Continues to Give Chelsea a Major Attacking Conundrum

Hazard's absence on Thursday left a space on Chelsea's left wing, but Willian ensured there was no mourning for the missing Belgian as he had a great impact in the same role.

The gulf in class between the two sides—and at times particular players—was all too evident for spells, and it was Willian's lightning feet that brought that difference to the surface. 

The Brazilian can dazzle as one of Europe's best wide men when he's on form, and sportswriter Sachin Nakrani lauded Willian's contribution after a gleaming first half, as well as hitting out at Antonio Conte's under-use of the player:

Willian gives Sarri a dilemma in how to fit him into his XI alongside Hazard and Pedro, with the former appearing to be undroppable and the latter boasting three goals in five league games under the new manager.

Thursday's goal was an especially just reward for Willian—who came on as a substitute to score against Cardiff on Saturday—as Chelsea writer Dan Levene celebrated the occasion of the clash:

It may be that somewhere along the line Chelsea drop their conventional frontman and promote Hazard into a more central role as Dries Mertens once did under Sarri at Napoli, thereby allowing Willian to start.

Alternatively, the Blues could just keep the South American locked away for European involvement considering he appears to effective in those competitions, per OptaJoe:

Willian was frustrated under Conte, but Sarri has a different appreciation for players of his sort.

The player has struggled to maintain form when he's secured starting responsibilities in the past, but Willian continues to force questions as to how he can become a more and more prominent figure at Stamford Bridge.

          

What's Next?

Chelsea will face the second of three consecutive away fixtures with a trip to West Ham United in the Premier League on Sunday, while PAOK have a stiff test in the Super League next up and are at home to AEK Athens the same day.

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