Willian eases Chelsea past PAOK Salonika

Willian puts Chelsea in front at PAOK Salonika in the seventh minute (Pic: Reuters/John Sibley)

Chelsea avoided a Greek tragedy when comfortably dispatching PAOK Salonika in their UEFA Europa League clash with a 1-0 win that was far more comfortable than the score-line suggested.

The hosts accorded Chelsea far too much respect and the Londoners dictated throughout, but spurned a series of good chances which left their fans facing a nervous last few minutes.

Yet in reality, once Willian had given them an early lead, the result was never in any doubt.

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Maurizio Sarri left Saturday’s hat-trick hero Eden Hazard out of the travelling 21-man squad but Cesc Fabregas, who had not started a game for Chelsea since their Community Shield defeat to Manchester City, was on the bench after recovering from a knee injury.

Marcos Alonzo and Ross Barkley were restored to the line-up, however.

Willian celebrates scoring their first goal (Pic: Reuters/John Sibley)

Coming into the Group L opener in Thessaloniki, PAOK had never lost to English opponents and had not conceded a goal against them, but Chelsea had also never lost to a side from Greece. It did not take long for something to give.

The Blues got off to the ideal start at the intimidating 29,000-capacity Toumba Stadium when going in front after just seven minutes and it was Barkley, fit again and influencing things in midfield, who was the focal point of a classic counter-attack, driving at the heart of the POAK defence before slipping a cute pass through to Willian.

Ross Barkley breezes past PAOK Salonika’s Yevhen Khacheridi (Pic: Reuters/John Sibley)

The Blues skipper was completely unmarked and he fired low past Alexandros Paschalakis for his second goal in as many games and his 46th for the London club.

POAK were almost undone again moments later when Pedro’s cross was headed over by Alvaro Morata, who could not keep the ball down and it sailed over the bar.

Morata was a constant threat and after 20 minutes he got away from Yevhen Khacheridi following a raking pass over the top from Antonio Rudiger, only to drag his shot across the face of goal.

Pedro is denied by Alexandros Paschalakis  in a first-half that Chelsea dominated (Pic: Reuters/John Sibley)

Though they had 62% possession in the first-half, they only had three shots on target.

With PAOK standing off Chelsea and looking a little overawed at times, they still could have gone in front level, as Barkley was lucky not to be punished when referee decided not to punish him for a blatant shirt pull in the box just before the interval.

Pedro had a golden chance to double the lead but fired straight at Paschalakis and Morata headed wide with a header from the resulting corner when it seemed easier to score.

In a totally comfortable first half, the most interesting moment in the first half came when Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck was seen handing out packets of crisps to travelling Blues fans. Perhaps he is a closet Charlton fan, who knew?

Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck hands out packets of crisps to travelling Blues fans

The second half started much in the manner of the first, with Willian volleying over, Barkley firing over from distance and Alonso’s saw a shot deflected wide after another cutting counter-attack. From the resulting corner, Rudiger should have doubled the lead, but he spurned yet another chance.

PAOK rarely threatened Kepa Arrizabalaga’s goal, although Rudiger’s under-hit back-pass mid-way though the second period almost caused a few Blues fans to regurgitate their salt and vinegar snacks. However, the danger was quickly averted.

Fabregas, who replaced Jorgino after 65 minutes, almost had an immediate impact, with his precise pass allowing Morata to out-pace Khacheridi and although the Chelsea forward clipped the ball past the keeper and into the net, he was ruled off-side. It could only have been a couple of inches and it looked a harsh decision.

Paschalakis, who looked uncomfortable gathering crosses, showed there was nothing wrong with his shot-stopping ability as he made a tremendous save from a well-struck Pedro effort soon after.

Cesc Fabregas replaced Jorginho and almost made an instant impact, setting up Morata (Pic: Reuters/John Sibley)

Morata, who had a total of six shots, none of which were on target, was replaced by Olivier Giroud with 10 minutes remaining. It was not his night and Sarri’s pat on the back as he left the pitch shaking his head probably did little to console the luckless Spaniard.

Although Amr Warda was brought down by a combination of Barkley and substitute Cesar Azpilicueta with just seconds of normal time remaining, the resulting free-kick was easily dealt with and Chelsea broke clear at pace.

Pedro surged forward but his touch was far too heavy and he was brought down right on the edge of the PAOK box by Paschalakis. His left shoulder bore the brunt of a heavy challenge and he was in extreme discomfort. He could be a doubt for their clash with West Ham on Sunday.

While Giroud’s dead-ball chance came to nought, the Blues saw this through with some degree of comfort.