Football

Pedro leads Chelsea into Europa League last four despite Slavia Prague scare


This was the Europa League’s attempt to replicate all the drama, if not necessarily the quality, of the Champions League’s glitzier midweek humdinger. Chelsea emerged from a thrillingly frenetic contest having eventually seen off the threat of Slavia Prague though, having scored four times before the half-hour mark, they would not have envisaged ending up leaning quite so heavily on the narrow victory achieved in the Czech Republic the previous week to progress.

There were times, even after that frantic opening, when they clung to Marcos Alonso’s goal at the Sinobo stadium to provide relief. Kepa Arrizabalaga was even booked for time wasting late on, so anxious had the home side become in preserving their lead in a game they must have thought secured early on. As it is, an 11th European victory of the season – actually an English record – has secured passage into a semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt, even if they will have to defend far more coherently than this if they are eventually to force passage into the showpiece in Baku next month.

If the Czech league leaders had aspired to discomfort their hosts, or at the very least provoke the odd flurry of nerves in the Premier League club’s ranks by staying in contention into the latter stages of the tie, then those hopes appeared to have been buried.

Every slickly constructed Chelsea attack had threatened to yield reward, so open were Jindrich Trpisovsky’s side. Their three-man back-line were bypassed at will, left dizzied by the ruthlessness of it all, with the closest they came to nullifying the threat a succession of fouls from Ondrej Kudela on the scuttling Eden Hazard. None provoked a caution.

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The Belgian’s left ankle had been bruised within the opening 80 seconds, and bloodied three minutes later as Kudela raked his Achilles near the touchline, ripping the sock in the process. Maurizio Sarri would actually call Hazard over during a lull in play after the half-hour mark, while Olivier Giroud received treatment, as if contemplating whether it might not be sensible for the forward to come off, so brutal had the treatment been to which he had been subjected. The tie had been claimed by then, and there are critical Premier League games ahead. Hazard, a man relishing his every appearance in this arena, was having none of it.

He had already played a part in two of Chelsea’s four goals though, in truth, Slavia had never looked capable of repelling the home side’s combination play whether it was summoned by César Azpilicueta or Pedro, N’Golo Kanté or Giroud, Emerson Palmieri or Ross Barkley. They all relished the space on offer as opponents flocked to stamp out Hazard’s menace. Pedro, in truth, might have registered four times in the first half alone having clipped the early opener over the advancing Ondrej Kolar after exchanging passes with Azpilicueta and Giroud.

The Spaniard would eventually scuff in his second before the half-hour after Hazard and Emerson had sliced through down the left, with Kolar pushing away Giroud’s shot for Pedro to pounce, albeit messily, at the far post. Yet, in between he had rued striking a post from point-blank range at Hazard’s low centre far earlier in the fray, not that it really mattered. It summed up Slavia’s ill fortune that the ball merely cannoned back off the upright and struck Simon Deli, helpless and facing his own goal, before rebounding into the net.

Poor Kolar looked broken, unprotected by a naive midfield and porous back-line. Kante would split them open yet again with a simple, slid pass inside Deli just after the quarter-hour which Pedro collected with glee. He drew the goalkeeper but, where he might have taken on the shot himself, squared for Giroud to convert his 10th Europa League goal in 11 appearances this term into the unguarded net. That Slavia would summon a splendid goal of their own almost went forgotten amid the chaos, the captain Tomas Soucek powering in a glorious header from Petr Sevcik’s corner. They had celebrated that with gusto, only for Pedro to sprint up the other end almost instantly and re-establish the hosts’ three-goal advantage.

There should have been no threat to Chelsea’s progress from that moment on though, given the madcap nature of the occasion, progress was never likely to prove so simple. Slavia, with nothing left to lose, duly roused themselves at the interval and, sensing complacency, forced themselves thrillingly back into the contest courtesy of Sevcik. Twice the home side – and Hazard in particular – left the midfielder in space just outside the penalty area, and twice he gleefully beat Kepa Arrizabalaga. The first was fizzed low through the goalkeeper’s dive. The second was glorious, roaring across Kepa and into the far corner. In that context, to see Sevcik miss a far easier chance, missing his kick as at the far post as parity on the night beckoned meeting Jaromir Zmrhal’s centre, was baffling.

By then, Chelsea had been properly panicked, the composure having long since drained from their game with all the pressure mounted by the Czechs. Sarri, bellowing instructions, sprinted down the touchline at one point imploring his players to retain their defensive shape and concentration, though it did not appear to have much of an effect. Slavia’s pride had been restored in their rumbustious second half showing. Chelsea have much to work on.



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