Marcos Alonso lands crucial late blow for Chelsea in Prague
Blues leave it late against Slavia as they take an away goal back to Stamford Bridge
Marcos Alonso heads home Chelsea’s late winner against Slavia Prague. Photograph: Thomas Eisenhuth/Bongarts/Getty
Slavia Prague 0 Chelsea 1
This ended up a reminder of the resilience and ruthlessness Chelsea have tended to conjure on this stage. For almost the entire contest in a chilly Czech Republic, Maurizio Sarri had fidgeted in frustration on the bench as his team rather spluttered out on the turf, overrun at times by a sprightly Slavia Prague. Then, four minutes from time, they coaxed a fine chance from nowhere and, with it, seized the initiative in the quarter-final.
Perhaps their hosts were too eager in their pursuit of a winner of their own but Willian, Chelsea’s most impressive attacking performer, was allowed too much time to measure a centre from the right that bypassed Slavia’s back-line. Up sprang Marcos Alonso, a player whose form has rather drained away since the autumn, between defenders to meet the cross with a header planted down and beyond Ondrej Kolar.
Given the struggles they had endured here in suppressing awkward opponents, a draw might have felt a fine result for Chelsea. As it was, they had emerged from their trickiest tie of a kind Europa League run victorious.
Sarri had warned up that this would prove a stern test of Chelsea’s recent revival, with the locals – unbeaten in their previous six European ties in this stadium – far from daunted by their visitors’ lofty reputation. Slavia were tenacious and energetic, urged on by a raucous support intent upon whipping up a din to make up for Uefa’s decision to close three sections of the ground, reducing the attendance by around 2,000, after crowd trouble at the recent knockout draw with Genk.
Unperturbed, Jindrich Trpisovsky’s side had torn into their opponents with relish, with Peter Olayinka a constant menace leading the line and team-mates overloading on markers down either flank.
Chelsea had strained to contain Slavia’s intent and while the hosts struggled to carve out clear-cut chances after Simon Deli’s header from Mirolsav Stoch’s early free-kick had drifted wide Chelsea retreated warily ever deeper.
Sevcik spat away a shot that Kepa Arrizabalaga spilled midway through that opening period, the Spaniard gathering the rebound gratefully to his chest.
The visitors had mustered precious little in response, for all that they retained the capacity to slice forward on the counter when Slavia overcommitted and surrendered possession.
Olivier Giroud might have capitalised from Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjul’s clumsy slip, only to meander slightly offside as he anticipated a clear run on goal. Instead, it was Willian – restored to the flank as one of seven changes from Monday’s win over West Ham – who made their best opportunity. Pedro had struggled to squeeze space for a shot but, instead, fed the Brazilian, who cut inside Coufal and bent a fine shot on to the crossbar from just inside the penalty area.
That served notice of Chelsea’s quality, though there were only ever flashes of such incision with too much of their play rather careless and ineffective. Antonio Rüdiger, who at least did draw a save from Kolar, took to screaming encouragement to team-mates in a bid to raise standards, with N’Golo Kanté’s dynamism and Eden Hazard’s slippery pedigree clearly missed. That Sarri would turn to the Belgian before the hour-mark exposed his exasperation at the lack of zest in the display.
His introduction, quickly followed by that of the World Cup winner, did at least spur Chelsea on with Willian immediately drilling just wide of a post, though the real urgency appeared to remain with Slavia.
It would take a smart save from Kepa to deny Ibrahim-Benjamin Traoré’s shot after the Ivorian had charged unchecked through the centre from deep, with the goalkeeper subsequently smothering Jan Boril’s snapshot after his weak punch at Josef Husbauer’s cross.
That offered Chelsea the platform from which to pounce late on. This tie, for all their toils, is there for the taking. - Guardian