While the race for the Premier League’s top four heats up, the Europa League may prove to be Chelsea’s best option in terms of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
The Blues face Ukraine’s most successful club, Dynamo Kyiv, in the last-16, with the first leg scheduled for Thursday at Stamford Bridge.
Dynamo Kyiv topped their Europa League group ahead of Stade Rennais, FC Astana and FK Jablonec, finishing with three wins, two draws and one defeat. This earned them a last-32 tie against Olympiacos, whom they beat 3-2 on aggregate.
Chelsea may be favourites for the tie, but Dynamo Kyiv can throw all they’ve got at their opponents, having confirmed second place in the Ukrainian Premier League going into the second league stage.
But what exactly have Dynamo Kyiv got, and how can they best use it to cause a shock result? Read on to find out three strengths the Ukrainian side could use to hurt Chelsea, and two weaknesses the Blues can look to exploit.
Though the Ukrainian league is not to be looked down on, even the biggest teams sometimes rely on the basics to get their way through tough opponents.
For Dynamo Kyiv, their best chance of controlling games against a team like Chelsea is to keep the ball in the air for as long as they can – frustrating both the Blues players and fans.
Chelsea do not have a huge number of tall players, especially in the forward areas, which Dynamo Kyiv can easily exploit.
The Ukrainian side have won a massive 21.5 aerial duels per game in the Europa League this season, more than any other team still in the competition. Of the regulars, centre-back Tamas Kadar leads the way with 5.2, which will be vital if up against Olivier Giroud.
And, for Kadar it’s not just the amount of duels won per game, his success rate is just as impressive. The 28-year-old has won 72.1% of his aerial duels in the Europa League this season, and can be key for Dynamo.
By pushing tight around the Chelsea box when the Blues’ goalkeeper has the ball, Dynamo Kyiv can force their opponents to go long, allowing Kadar to win the ball back for the Ukrainians to go again.
A solid defence cannot be built on aerial prowess alone, you need to be able to back it up with some kind of competence on the ground.
And Dynamo Kyiv’s centre-backs do provide that when opponents try to get the ball into the box from out wide.
As a team, Dynamo Kyiv have averaged 2.9 crosses blocked per game in the Europa League this season – the fourth highest overall. And, of the teams remaining in the competition, only FC Krasnodar have managed more with 3.4 per game.
Young left-back Vitaliy Mykolenko has been the main man for this, stopping on average one cross from getting into the box per game. His full-back partner Tomasz Kedziora is equally as impressive with 0.8 per game.
Given Chelsea’s use of attacking full-backs and wingers, Mykolenko and Kedziora can be key in frustrating their opponents, ensuring Giroud – who is likely to start – has barely any useful service.
The strength of their blocks could also force Chelsea’s wingers inside into a packed centre of the pitch made from their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, meaning at least four men will be there as a roadblock.
When Andriy Yarmolenko left for Borussia Dortmund in 2017, Dynamo Kyiv fans may have worried about where their danger would come from in attack.
Up stepped academy product Viktor Tsygankov to fill the hole left by his compatriot, and the club have not looked back since.
Tsygankov is one of Dynamo Kyiv’s key players this season in both the Ukrainian Premier League and the Europa League.
The 21-year-old, who has captained Dynamo Kyiv for large parts of the current season, has hit double figures for goals and assists across all competitions this term playing from both the left and right wing.
He is the club’s top scorer in the league with nine goals, while also chipping in with another two in the Europa League, but his creativity has been vital too.
With four assists in the Europa League, only Willian (five) and BATE’s Igor Stasevic (seven) have more in the competition this season.
His performances as a teenager saw Tsygankov compared to the likes of Andriy Shevchenko and Real Madrid star and four-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale. He became the club’s second-youngest European scorer in 2016, aged just 19.
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This is not necessarily a weakness for Chelsea to exploit, but it is certainly one they can make the most of if they are set up right.
Chelsea have conceded just four goals in eight Europa League games this season, despite Sarri often rotating his back line. But the problem for Dynamo Kyiv is they don’t look like hurting opposition defences.
In the Europa League this season, the Ukrainian side have created on average 8.1 chances per game, with Tsygankov leading the way for the club with 2.9 per game.
This has translated to their average of 10.1 shots per game and 13 goals in eight matches, a record that does not look good enough for a team looking to get past the one-time Europa League winners.
If Sarri puts trust in his centre-backs and midfielders to keep Dynamo Kyiv’s attack at bay, while their own attackers hold onto the ball for the majority of the tie, it could be a long 180 minutes for the Ukrainians.
Though Dynamo Kyiv may possess strong defensive skills which could see Chelsea falter, the Ukrainian side’s defence as a whole is pretty poor and can be seen as a weakness.
Domestically, it isn’t too bad, with Dynamo Kyiv having kept 14 clean sheets in 21 games against Ukrainian opponents this season.
But in their 12 matches in European competitions including the Champions League qualifying rounds, the club have managed just four clean sheets.
Of those four, two have come in eight Europa League games, though one proved vital as they beat Olympiacos 1-0 in their last-32 second leg to set up the clashes with Chelsea.
While some shut-outs can evaporate due to a moment of bad luck, Dynamo Kyiv have often been inviting opponents to come on the offensive in the Europa League this season.
Alyaksandr Khatskevich’s men have allowed on average 13.9 shots against them per game in the Europa League, the second worst record of those teams remaining in the competition.
Regardless of who Chelsea field on Thursday and in the second leg, the attacking players are bound to have shots, with the Blues leading the way in the Europa League with 19.9 on average per game.
Sarri’s men are also the fourth-highest scorers with 17 in eight games, and should expect to continue their run of scoring in every Europa League match this season.