Chelsea beat Malmo 3-0 at Stamford Bridge on Thursday night to seal their passage to the next round of the Europa League.
A laboured first half saw the two sides go in level at the break, but the Blues turned it on in the following period as goals from Olivier Giroud, Ross Barkley and Callum Hudson-Odoi did the business for Maurizio Sarri, completing a 5-1 aggregate rout.
So, who were the winners and losers from Thursday night’s Europa League clash?
Winner – Callum Hudson-Odoi
And the ‘play Hudson-Odoi’ train gathers more steam.
Within just 30 minutes, the 18-year-old winger had completed six take-ons, as many as the other 21 players on the pitch combined at that point, and looked like Chelsea’s biggest threat throughout the first half.
Callum Hudson-Odoi completed six take-ons in the opening 30 minutes against Malmo, as many as all other 21 players on the pitch combined.
Making his mark. 💃 pic.twitter.com/IRUl8Rdjd0
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 21, 2019
And things didn’t slow down at all in the second half as the England U19 international finished the game with nine dribbles completed and a late goal to his name, pleasing the whole of Stamford Bridge and surely putting his name into the hat for a starting place at Wembley on Sunday.
Loser – Maurizio Sarri
A lethargic, lifeless first-half performance from Chelsea was met with a rather sizeable smattering of boos upon the half-time whistle at Stamford Bridge on Thursday.
It’s fair to say that Chelsea fans are getting sick and tired of waiting for that ‘Sarri-ball’ myth to present itself as reality and they really let their manager know here.
An unlikely win over Man City in the League Cup final on Sunday will certainly usher a few wolves away from the Italian’s door, but Thursday’s laboured first-half performance against a poor Malmo side will do nothing to alleviate the pressure on that tie, even if Chelsea did get a 3-0 win and progress to the next round in the end.
Winner – N’Golo Kante
The one bit of vindication Sarri did get on Thursday night was the performance of N’Golo Kante in the No.8 role.
While many around him played at a snail’s pace and looked like a nervous wreck, the Frenchman continued to be his energetic, industrious, absolutely brilliant self.
Kante won the ball in midfield and charged forward with it in the build-up to Olivier Giroud’s goal in the 55th minute, laying the ball to Willian for his assist.
And that moment of quality was indicative of Kante’s performance all night, with the 27-year-old making three tackles and posting a pass completion rate of 89% before being given a well-earned rest toward the end of the game.
The screaming and shouting for Kante to be moved back into his defensive role is understandable, but the former Leicester man is still a top-class No.8 as well.
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Loser – Mateo Kovacic
Statistically, Mateo Kovacic shouldn’t be anywhere near the loser’s section. The Croatian midfielder completed 97% of his passes against Malmo and did a decent job of recycling possession at the base of Sarri’s central trio.
However, the stats don’t tell the full story here. Prior to Thursday’s game, a lot of the spotlight was on Jorginho’s role in the Chelsea side and who could come in to rotate with the Italian now that Cesc Fabregas is gone. Kovacic obviously felt that pressure early on with a couple of terribly misplaced passes that put hearts firmly in Chelsea supporters’ mouths and almost had Malmo in on goal.
The 24-year-old also seemed to really struggle when the Swedish side pressed high up the pitch, running himself into dead ends and very nearly getting caught in possession on a number of occasions.
The average age of Malmo’s side on Thursday was just short of 28, while a distinct lack of quality in their league – coupled with the fact that their domestic season ended in October – naturally leads to lower fitness levels and that press dying off in the second half. At this point, Kovacic found things far easier. In the Premier League, however, or even the League Cup final on Sunday, that press will not die so easily and the Real Madrid loanee may struggle to cope in midfield fast lane.
Winner – Olivier Giroud
Olivier Giroud has been pretty poor in the Premier League this season, scoring just one goal in 19 outings.
The Europa League has been a totally different story for the former Arsenal striker, though. Giroud put Chelsea 1-0 up on the night against Malmo with a true poacher’s goal, tapping in a Willian cross after some great work from Kante in midfield.
Olivier Giroud has now scored six goals in his last five Europa League appearances:
He can’t stop scoring in Europe. 🥇 pic.twitter.com/YbTqPKk1YE
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 21, 2019
That goal was Giroud’s sixth in his last five Europa League outings and proves that, at the very least, he is a viable back-up to Gonzalo Higuain.
A late claim for a Wembley start as well, perhaps?