Their shoot-out win over Bayern Munich in Bavaria five years ago was the last time an English side won the biggest prize in club football, and Antonio Conte’s class of 2017 look better equipped to do it again than the rest of the Premier League’s finest.
“We’ve been waiting for some time to be back in the Champions League, and it has finally arrived. It was a good performance, a good result and you never know if these goals will count at the end of the group stage,” said Cesc Fabregas afterwards.
“The team is collectively getting back to our best slowly. But we’ve now got seven games in 21 days, something we were not used to last year so we have to try our best to rest and recover.”
They are defensively better than Liverpool and the two Manchester sides, have more attacking options than Tottenham, and in Willian one of the most in-form players in Europe. The brilliant Brazilian was in scintillating form again, and though the nearest he came to scoring was a shot that rattled the Qarabag crossbar. When Willian is on this form he is almost unplayable, wriggling like an eel through tiny gaps, switching the play and setting up his team-mates.
The opening goal originated in his quick brain, when he collected a short corner from Fabregas in the fifth minute and spotted Pedro lurking unmarked on the edge of the penalty area. The Spaniard met the ball first time on the edge of the ‘D’ and placed a firm shot with the side of his right foot past Ibrahim Sehic.
The Azerbaijan champions possess a handful of players with skill and a nice touch, but they were overwhelmed by Chelsea’s athleticism, speed of thought and technical ability.
Conte took this seriously from the start, resting only Alvaro Morata, David Luiz and Victor Moses from his regular side, with a still-not-fully fit Eden Hazard also on the subs’ bench. In place of Moses, Davide Zappacosta made his full debut on the right of midfield, and marked it with a spectacular goal on 30 minutes. When the Italian midfielder collected the ball 30 yards from goal and near the right touchline, he looked across the edge of the penalty area to see where his team-mates were expecting a cross. He looked down at the ball before it flew off his boot and past a startled Sehic in the middle of the goal. Fluke it may have been, but it looked fantastic.
The keeper saved a low shot from Willian, and Marcos Alonso had a close range effort blocked. But Qarbag’s defence went missing again when Cesar Azpilicueta made it 3-0 shortly after half-time, ghosting in unmarked to head Fabregas’ superb flicked pass home.
The game won, Conte sent on Hazard for fitness, ahead of Chelsea’s clash with Arsenal this weekend, and Tiemoue Bakayako, who scored his first goal since joining from Monaco with a close range finish in the 71st minute. Michy Batshuayi has not been flavour of the month with Chelsea’s supporters recently, but the young Belgian helped himself top a couple of late goals. The first came after more good work from Willian, who never stopped running or creating chances, and Batshuayi’s second, in the closing stages, came when he turned the ball over the line from close range after a good run and cross from Zappacosta.
The Italian tried a difficult volley from a cross, but miscued it horribly and the ball went high and wide. It did not matter, as Chelsea finished as they had started, in total control. When Qarabag finally got a clear sight of goal, in the final minutes, South African striker Dino Ndlovu fired the ball high over the bar. Chelsea will face harder tests, with Atletico Madrid and Roma to come, and a London derby with Arsenal this weekend.
Courtois 7; Azpilicueta 7 (Rudiger 74), Christensen 7, Cahill 7; Zappacosta 7 Kante 8 (Bakayoko 63), Fabregas 8 Alonso 7; Willian 9, Batshuayi 7 Pedro 7 (Hazard 58)
Sehic 6: Medvedev 6 Huseynov 5 Sadygov 5 (Madatov 70) Rzezniczak 5: Garayev 6 (Diniyev 70), Henrique 6, Michel 6, Richard Almeida 5, Guerrier 5; Ndlovu 4
Tasos Sidiropoulos (Greece).