You would not have known that from the incessant noise created by PAOK’s supporters who have developed a reputation in recent years for giving visitors a hostile time, and it is credit to Chelsea that they coped with that so professionally.
There were flares, smoke bombs, furious chanting and, for Chelsea, no Eden Hazard, but ultimately it was a case of job done as they got their Europa League campaign off to a winning start having taken the lead through Willian and created enough chances to have departed from here with a thrashing to their name. PAOK were well and truly tamed on a wild night in northern Greece.
There was no David Luiz nor Mateo Kovacic either for Chelsea but Maurizio Sarri nonetheless put out a strong team and they well and truly showed their class in the opening fixture of Group L.
PAOK’s supporters had started gathering outside this venue more than two hours before kick-off and, once inside, created an atmosphere that was as spectacular as it was intimidating. The noise built gradually and then, as the players came out, the stand containing PAOK’s ultras well and truly came alive. Flames were lit and smoke billowed from those gathered at one side of this 29,000-seat bowl-like arena, many of whom were now topless and chanting like their lives depended on it.
Chelsea’s modest group of supporters could only look on from the other side of the ground and may well have found it disconcerting to see an ambulance and fire engine parked in front of them. Rumours that some of their fellow fans had been attacked with knives as they made their way to the stadium would hardly have helped matters, nor, probably, the sight of Chelsea’s chairman, Bruce Buck, handing out free packets of crisps to those who had travelled.
Yet it was not long before those in the away end were celebrating. Having started positively, Chelsea took the lead inside seven minutes as Willian, captaining the side for the first time in a competitive fixture, collected Ross Barkley’s pass and slotted a shot underneath Alexandros Paschalakis having driven into the right channel of the area. It was a calm finish at the end of a well-crafted move and set the tone for the remainder of the half.
The visitors were too aggressive with their pressing and slick with their movement for the opponents and could have scored at least four more times before the interval had they shown more ruthlessness. Álvaro Morata had three chances alone to extend Chelsea’s lead, the most glaring of which was an unmarked header from Davide Zappacosta’s cross on 10 minutes but which landed wide.
PAOK were being overwhelmed, which would have been a strange feeling for a team that finished second in their top flight last season, won the Greek Cup and have triumphed in all three of their league matches this campaign. However, they only have seven points as two were deducted as part of punishments that followed the jaw-dropping moment in March when the club’s president, Ivan Savvidis, stormed on to the pitch during a match against AEK to protest against the referee’s decision to deny PAOK an 89th-minute goal. Savvidis was carrying a gun at the time.
The home side’s best attempt during the first half was a header from the centre-half Fernando Varela that went over and it was easy to wonder if their manager, Razvan Lucescu, had made a big error in only naming Serbia striker Aleksandar Prijovic, top scorer in Greece last season with 19 goals, among his substitutes after the 28-year-old had collected a hamstring strain at the weekend.
Life did not get easier for the home side at the start of the second half as Chelsea continued to push them back and create chances. Willian could have scored twice in a matter of minutes before Alonso went close again to scoring just after the hour mark.
Sarri made a double substitution soon after, bringing on César Azpilicueta and Cesc Fàbregas for Alonso and Jorginho, before Lucescu, having made one change already, brought on Prijovic with 21 minutes remaining.
There came a late surge from the hosts, during which Kepa Arrizabalaga was forced to push away a looping right-wing cross for a corner as well as hold a shot from the substitute Diego Biseswar, both of which led to the raucous noise from the home fans going up a notch or two.
But ultimately Chelsea saw the game out with the only negative for them being the sight of Pedro departing from the field late on with a suspected dislocated shoulder.
Source: The Guardian