Chelsea kick started their European Champions League Campaign with an emphatic win against the Group C whipping boys, as Pedro, Davide Zappacosta, Cesar Azpilicueta, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Michy Batshuayi all netted on a night when Conte’s team could have had a hatful.
It was Qarabag’s first venture into the Champions League – indeed Azerbaijan’s first venture into the competition as a country.
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The club from the war-torn western region of the state have seen their home base Aghdam turned into a virtual ghost town by the conflict with neighbouring Armenia. They actually play their ‘home’ games 440km away in the capital Baku, their own Imarat Stadium now reduced to rubble by the bombing and shelling.
Their fans know them as the ‘Barcelona of the Caucasus’, and a win over Copenhagen in the last qualifying round marked Gurban Gurbanov’s side down as one not to be totally underestimated. But still, it was a game that simply had to be won by Conte’s team.
Chelsea’s last outing in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge had seen them lose 2-1 to Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 in March 2016 – when David Luiz, now normally at the heart of their defence but last night on the bench, had a storming game to shut them out. It seems a long time ago now.
Some 366 souls made their way from Azerbaijan to London, watching their team face a strong Chelsea side. Predictably, it did not turn out to be a successful trip.
Marcos Alonso forced a save from Ibrahim Sehic early on, then the goalkeeper had to dive at Batshuayi’s feet to keep him out, but it did not take long for Chelsea to break through.
Willian fed Pedro on the edge of the area and the Spaniard crashed his drive past Sehic.
Batshuayi then hit the sidenetting when he should have scored and Sehic made a great save from debutant Zappacosta’s header, as Chelsea penned their opponents in. But the new £23million full-back had his moment on the half-hour. Bursting down the right, Zappacosta raced past two men and then cracked a glorious drive over Sehic from 35 yards.
It was almost certainly meant to be a cross that the goalkeeper horribly misjudged but Chelsea will not worry about that. Zappacosta was off the mark and straight away an instant hero with the Stamford Bridge fans.
Chelsea were attacking at will, with Willian running the show against a Qarabag defence clearly struggling to cope with the Premier League side’s pace and movement.
There was no holding back Zappacosta, as he burst down the right again and drilled a shot just wide of the far post. Chelsea had been in total control right from the off – and showed no signs of letting up against the Group C minnows.
Qarabag’s few attacks produced the odd long-range shot that Thibaut Courtois, a spectator for most of the proceedings, dealt with comfortably. A third had to arrive, though, and the inevitable happened when Cesc Fabregas chipped the ball in and Azpilicueta stooped to nod home only his sixth Chelsea goal from six yards out.
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Zappacosta tried his luck again from the edge of the area but his effort flew high and wide, after another piece of Willian trickery had once again opened up the Qarabag defence.
Another new boy, substitute Bakayoko, grabbed the fourth goal when his shot deflected in off Michel. And at last Batshuayi found his range, as he fired home the fifth, before Maksim Medvedev scored an own-goal in the closing minutes.
With much tougher tests to come in this group, it was a win that was necessary. It even, almost, had Conte smiling at times.
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