How Chelsea fired their guns to put Europe on notice
The wounds haven't quite healed at Stamford Bridge. Three straight wins since the opening day have repaired much of the damage done by that opening day defeat to Burnley, but Antonio Conte's side continue to labour against their diminished reputation. A late flurry of transfers on deadline day have added some fat to an overly lean squad, but the lingering perception is that all is still not quite as it was.
That might suit Conte. Under normal circumstances, the Italian would be facing questions as to whether his side could balance a successful Champions League campaign with a convincing title defence. An opportunity for self-perpetuating negativity if ever there was one. As it is, the summer of acrimony has Chelsea flying under the radar. Vast spending in the north has cast them as a Premier League outsider and their two-year absence from UEFA's top table has allowed them to return with greatly reduced expectations.
But sometimes the story can mask the truth. Conte's relationship with his employers might well have been strained by recruiting misfires, but he remains the head coach of a highly dangerous football team. Alvaro Morata has started to stir at the top of the formation, Eden Hazard has returned to full fitness, and the Italian has retained all but one member of his title-winning first XI. They're not a favourite home or abroad, but Chelsea remain a threat.
Qarabag have walked through the Champions League doors to a more cheerful tune. Conquerors of Samtredia, Sheriff Tiraspol and FC Copenhagen in the qualifying rounds, they are the first Azerbaijani side to ever play at this level of European football. A terrific achievement - but also a soft opening night for Chelsea and a chance, as they are domestically, to pace forward undetected.
Conte made five changes from the weekend win over Leicester, notably handing a debut to Davide Zappacosta, restoring Michy Batshuayi in place of the rested Morata, and granting Danish centre-half Andreas Christensen his first European start for the club. It was both cautious and descriptive: Chelsea are no longer a powerhouse side or a team who can call on a small army of £30m replacements. What they do possess, however, is a small hub of world-class players who, if managed carefully, can remain fresh enough to be difference-makers all the way through this tournament.
Key to that will be Conte's skilled navigation. Chelsea unquestionably benefited from a lighter schedule in 2016/17, pulling away from the pack while the chasers toiled in Europe. With the extra fixtures - and in a group containing perennial contenders Atletico Madrid and a menacing Roma - Conte will need to read the tides particularly well.
Qarabag evidently arrived in England still basking in the afterglow of their qualification. The stubborn, sensible side who frustrated Copenhagen in the previous round scattered under the bright lights inside five minutes, allowing a basic short-corner routine to free Pedro on the edge of the box and the Spaniard to authoritatively sidefoot Chelsea into the lead.
After hal an hour, Zappacosta exposed more space down the visitors' left, surging forward from the halfway line before slicing a mis-hit cross past Ibrahim Sehic from the touchline. It was fortuitous, certainly, but indicative of the space Chelsea found in the first half. Qarabag missed tackles and their enthusiasm for the occasion created deep fractures in their formation, but Conte will have been heartened by the volume of chances his side managed to create.
- Davide Zappacosta is the 100th different Italian player to score in the Champions League (excl. own goals).
One of the criticisms of the modern Champions League concerns its monotony. The current seeding system creates processional group stages and has deferred the sense of competition until deep into the knockout stages. Be that as it may, an early sign of health - one which Conte will have been particularly keen to see - is the ability to handle minnows wth little fuss. Chelsea certainly did that: N'Golo Kante was a roaming presence from midfield and the combinations behind Batshuayi, who is often a bewildering, confused focal point, were in full working order. Mechanics are vital in European football and functionality will always outweight everything else.
Qarabag's limitations create a natural caveat. Wide midfielder Pedro Henrique was an accomplished and occasionally penetrative presence, making Marcos Alonso's night trickier than expected, while goalkeeper Sehic also made several good saves, but as a team the Azerbaijanis often looked entirely overwhelmed. The temptation might be to present that as first night nerves, but it shouldn't be ignored that Chelsea actually played very well. The personnel may have been different, but the structure-led strengths were familiar: the wing-backs helped to pin the opposition in their own half, spare men sprung up all over the final third and Pedro, Willian and Fabregas purred with menace. This was mid-season form. Last season's mid-season form.
The result was put beyond doubt shortly before the hour. Fabregas teased a cross into the six-yard box and an unmasked Cesar Azpilicueta headed in a third. Raw swagger. The kind of goal scored by a team who know they belong at this level and are feeling their superiority.
Ultimately, this became exactly the sort of game which the Champions League's detractors will use to flog UEFA. Tiemoue Bakayoko prodded in a fourth after another defensive mishap and, 15 minutes before the end, Batshuayi struck from the edge of box after an errant pass had been snaffled. By the time the Belgian forward scored his second and Chelsea's sixth, it was evident that the Qarabag players would rather have been anywhere other than Stamford Bridge.
It was a formality which parodied the notion of elite competition. Nevertheless, it was also exactly what Conte would have wanted; his team's limitations have been overstated and his commitment to and hold over his players exaggerated. The rest of Europe will note this result with interest rather than fear, reasoning it to be a classic mismatch of little consequence. But that would be an error: Chelsea may have steamrollered a weak opponent, but they also fired a powerful warning shot which should not be ignored.