Chelsea hold off BATE to qualify for knockouts
Chelsea and Maurizio Sarri are targeting the Europa League as a potential trophy for this season, and tonight's fixture gave them the chance to secure qualification for the knockout stages - their opponents: Belarusian champions BATE Borisov, who sat bottom of the group prior to kick-off.
Eden Hazard made his long-awaited return for the 'Blues' after a month on the sidelines, as he hoped to rediscover his early season form that saw him strike seven times in the Premier League.
Surprisingly, BATE started the brighter side, as 12 minutes in a goal-mouth scramble saw Alyaksey Baha's side strike the post and Zakhar Volkov almost poke home from close range to open the scoring. Yet, Chelsea - as they did repeatedly throughout the game - rode out what looked like a dangerous attack.
Perhaps Chelsea's best chance of the first-half - they were rather limited by excellent, compact defending from the Belarusians - came five minutes later as Jorginho lofted a ball over the top to Olivier Giroud, whose volleyed effort towards goal was blocked a rolled out for a corner.
The rest of the half seemed to play out as follows: Chelsea pick up the ball on the wing and launch an early cross towards the area, only to either under-hit or over-hit the ball for Chelsea's forwards to be unsuccessful in directing towards the goal.
Minutes after the second-half began, the 'Blues' finally made a breakthrough and the complexion of the game changed entirely. Emerson, receiving the ball on the left flank, curled a delightful cross towards the six-yard box, for which Olivier Giroud was extremely grateful. The Frenchman got to the cross ahead of the BATE defence and directed a powerful low header towards the near post, beating Scherbitsky in a manner that the 22-year-old Belarusian might have been disappointed with.
BATE almost got back into the game minutes later, as Stasevic's cross was left for Alexei Rios to run on too only for the Belarusian to blaze his strike over the crossbar.
Chelsea then showed their superiority for the next half-hour, as they dominated possession and had a monopoly on the few chances that came to the game. Jorginho and Ross Barkley both tried their luck from distance on several occasions but could not find the back of the net, while another Olivier Giroud header did manage to test Scherbitsky.
However, all was not deflated for the Belarusians as they marched forward in the final few minutes in search of a goal. Substitute Yevgeniy Berezkin cut inside onto his left foot and sent a low strike just inches wide of Kepa's far corner, before hitting the post in an incredible last 30 seconds. The ball landed on the edge of the area for the Belarusian to volley from 20 yards, cannoning back into the area off the post. The hosts were unlucky not to poke the ball past the Chelsea defence on the rebound, as the London side held on to all three points.
Maurizio Sarri & Co. fly back to England knowing they are safely through to the knockout stages of the competition, while BATE sit in a far from ideal position at the foot of Group L.