Chelsea steady the ship with win away to Malmö FF
Barkley scores opener in Sweden as Sarri’s side bounce back from Man City humbling
Chelsea’s Ross Barkley celebrates his opener with Olivier Giroud. Photograph: Andreas Hillergren/EPA
Malmö FF 1 Chelsea 2
European competition has offered Maurizio Sarri some respite. Chelsea may not have dazzled in southern Sweden, and a late concession has left the tie far more delicately balanced than they would have hoped. But, in the context of the wounds inflicted recently upon this team at Bournemouth and Manchester City, any victory away from home is to be cherished.
Malmö’s late reward, taken neatly on the gallop by the impressive Anders Christiansen as he burst away from Mateo Kovacic to collect Markus Rosenberg’s pass, will pep Swedish belief in next week’s return leg. Yet Chelsea, with pressing domestic matters occupying their head coach’s mind around this tie, will be confident of progressing. Sarri had trusted in his players’ pedigree against opponents lacking in match sharpness and, had that last burst of adrenalin not yielded the locals their reward, it would have felt a job professionally done. As it is, Chelsea cannot relax quite yet.
This had been a scrap of a contest from the moment the smoke, which had billowed from flares lit across the front of the stand housing Malmö’s most vociferous supporters ahead of kick-off, had cleared. The din would go up whenever one of the locals snapped into a tackle to snuff out Chelsea’s patient possession. Plenty of that monopoly of the ball felt like a plod, a sizing-up of opponents who are in pre-season with five friendly fixtures under their belts since their last Europa League outing in December. Yet what appeared aimless at times could, at a push, have been considered an exercise in composure. By the interval, the visitors had plucked a lead from the only clear-cut opportunity of the first half.
Ross Barkley had forced them ahead, benefiting from Lasse Nielsen’s ill-judged decision to attempt to repel Pedro’s routine centre with a volley rather than a header. The ball would bypass the centre-half to land at Barkley’s feet and, despite a clumsy first touch, he adjusted his feet swiftly enough to poke his shot beyond Johan Dahlin before Andreas Vindheim could muster a challenge on the cover. It was Chelsea’s first goal away from Stamford Bridge this calendar year, and a source of relief rather than elation.
Sarri would turn on his heels at the break relatively satisfied to have secured a lead, if not necessarily enamoured with the display. A sense lingered that Malmö, for all their frantic energy, were there for the taking, even if the visitors’ quintet of changes from the drubbing at the Etihad stadium had been made in anticipation of key players making an impact off the bench once the Swedes tired late on. “We have to play four or five very important matches, so we have to change,” the Italian had offered in the buildup. “I prefer to have very strong players on the bench for the last 20-25 minutes.” For so long, it appeared an astute approach.
Certainly, his initial selection seemed intent upon grinding down local resistance. There was precious little zip to Chelsea’s approach, the tension in their display perhaps summed up by Jorginho’s animated exchange with Kovacic early on after the Croatian had been robbed of the ball. Marcus Antonsson would eventually crumple under David Luiz’s challenge on the edge of the penalty area, with the Bulgarian official waving away Malmö’s appeals for a free-kick. Their frustration spilled over, with objects – plastic pint glasses, some full – flung over the fencing separating the opposing supporters at the opposite end of the ground. Police and stewards moved in swiftly in an attempt to calm matters down, though the risk of another Uefa investigation remains. Chelsea are already due to discover if they are to be sanctioned for alleged racist chanting in December’s game in Budapest at the end of the month.
The hosts had lacked a cutting edge even with Arnór Ingvi Traustason driving them on whenever he could through midfield, but had at least troubled the Premier League team at set-pieces. Christiansen’s free-kick prompted a pinball in the Chelsea penalty area, with Malmö unable to force the loose ball home as it ricocheted around the goalmouth. There would be more urgency propelling the Swedes forward in the second period. Traustason, unmarked on the edge of the area, saw a shot at Behrang Safari’s corner deflected just wide with Kepa Arrizabalaga helpless, while it took a timely lunge from César Azpilicueta to deny Markus Rosenberg a run on goal.
Yet their desire to push upfield left them critically vulnerable to the counterattack. The hour mark was approaching when Jorginho conjured a fine pass to liberate Barkley, charging forward into enemy territory at back-tracking defenders. Willian accepted the midfielder’s diagonal pass and wriggled round his marker to the byline to square for Olivier Giroud, virtually on the goalline, to backheel in a fifth Europa League goal of term.
Barkley would be denied further plunder by Dahlin’s fingertips, with Giroud also close to adding what would have been a decisive third. Yet, with the cavalry flung on, Chelsea would ship at the last to offer Malmö some hope. They will have 3,500 fans at Stamford Bridge, all convinced this tie can still be retrieved.