Chelsea cruise past Qarabag and into the knockout stages
An early penalty and Qarabag red card had the writing on the wall
Chelsea’s players celebrate the team’s second goal during their Champions League win over Qarabag. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/Getty Images
Qarabag 0 Chelsea 4
There was no mass celebration from Antonio Conte and his players at the final whistle, polite handshakes replacing joyous punches of the air, but all in the visitors’ ranks could take pride in a job professionally done. Comfortable victory in Baku has prolonged Chelsea’s Champions League campaign into the new year and, in the process, lessened the significance of next month’s final group fixture against Atlético Madrid.
They may not feel it at Anfield on Saturday, when aching limbs must deal with Liverpool, but the 5,000-mile round trip to Azerbaijan has been distinctly worthwhile. When the section was drawn that last meeting with the Spanish had felt potentially awkward, even daunting. Now it will merely determine whether the Premier League side progress as group winners or runners-up and, in a crammed schedule in which margin for error is at such a premium, a relatively relaxed evening in early December is to be cherished.
Conte must have admired his team’s busy energy and the grace with which they manoeuvred the ball, with David Luiz reintegrated after his spell out of favour and the collective efficiently dismantling Qarabag’s 10 men. The Italian was even able to withdraw the excellent Eden Hazard and overworked Marcos Alonso long before the end, even if it was a pity he did not take the opportunity to give the 18-year-old Dujon Sterling a European debut off the bench. It had long become a night of such luxury, capped by Willian’s blistering strike from just outside box as time ticked way.
By then the crowd had thinned. Local disappointment was born as much of a sense of anticlimax as exasperation at the performance of the referee, Manuel de Sousa. The hosts, in their first campaign at this level, had improved markedly since succumbing with a whimper at Stamford Bridge on debut in September. They had scared Roma, and taken points from Atlético Madrid home and away, effectively aiding Chelsea’s quest to progress from the group in the process. The manager, Gurban Gurbanov, had urged his players to make a statement on the exiled team’s final run-out in Baku’s sparkling bowl of a stadium and there had been an initial confidence to their play, particularly on the counter-attack, that had exposed the visitors’ rejigged rearguard in the opening exchanges. It would all be horribly undermined by the dismissal, of course, but, for a while, the momentum had actually been Azerbaijani.
David Luiz, recalled after an absence of two matches, was initially discomforted by Dino Ndlovu’s aggressive running. A dawdling Davide Zappacosta was caught in possession too easily by Mahir Madatov. César Azpilicueta’s block had choked that opportunity, but the majority in the vociferous crowd had whooped in delight at every Chelsea mistake, and wailed in frustration when an opportunity to ease ahead was spurned. Michel, a Spanish midfielder once of Birmingham City, calmly slid the ball wide to a marauding Maksim Medvedev just before the quarter-hour mark. The right-back exchanged passes with Ndlovu, with his heavy return touch falling perfectly for Michel who lifted his shot on to the crossbar.
Thibaut Courtois made clear his dissatisfaction at the ease with which Qarabag had cut through his defence though the sting was drawn from the occasion within minutes. It was Conte’s decision to play a slippery front three, all quick feet and pace across the turf, which panicked the locals. In the early exchanges that trio of Hazard, Willian and Pedro had struggled to read each other’s darts, but their collective wavelengths were not scrambled for long. Once on song they were irrepressible.
A cleverly slipped pass from Hazard sent Willian skipping through beyond Rashad Sadygov, with the centre-half rather clumsily leaning into the Brazilian’s back just inside the penalty area. Willian crumpled, the Portuguese official awarded the penalty and dismissed the home side’s captain. The red card felt harsh, Gurbanov’s disgust was very clear on the touchline and the crowd were just as displeased when the incident was replayed on the big screens at half-time. It would not be the only time they would vent their spleen at De Sousa. Hazard’s penalty was stroked easily into the corner – no Belgian has scored more goals in the Champions League – and, from that moment on, this became a procession with all Qarabag’s defensive insecurities from their trip to London, if never their fight, exposed yet again. By the interval Chelsea were as good as through.
There was beauty to admire to their second, a culmination of crisp and accurate passes between Cesc Fàbregas, Pedro, Willian and Hazard. The Belgian back-heeled his assist square, his dizzied markers failing to anticipate such impudence, for Willian to collect and calmly finish beyond a helpless Ibrahim Sehic. The goalkeeper would excel thereafter to deny Pedro, Willian and Hazard further reward, and should not have been given a chance by the substitute Álvaro Morata, who steered a shot wide.
Yet Qarabag’s misery was not yet complete. Gara Garayev’s tug on Willian’s shoulder, yanking back the shirt, was spotted by the referee and, once again, the locals were left bemoaning the softest of spot-kicks. Fàbregas, his first effort ruled out for encroachment after a staggered run-up, scored and the crowd began to drift towards the exits. Most, dismayed by the whole experience, had long since left by the time Willian smashed in his side’s fourth, and 10th in two games against this team. Chelsea will hope to deflate loftier opponents than these when the knockout phase begins next year. – Guardian service