Chelsea’s status as frontrunners to win the Europa League is difficult to argue against. Winners of this competition as recently as 2013, the Blues are expected to romp Group L – possibly with a full set of 18 points – as Sarri enjoys the same illustrious start to life at Stamford Bridge as his predecessor did. Though the writing was on the wall for Chelsea’s title defence before Christmas, few could have envisaged Chelsea opening their next European campaign against Hungarian minnows that few people have heard of.
Mol Vidi frustrated a favoured Malmo side in the Champions League third qualifying round to guarantee passage to the Europa League at the very least.
The bar is high
With Chelsea also gifted home advantage for matchday two of the Europa League, there can be absolutely no excuses. Four Chelsea wins from four in the Premier League, prior to the September international break, have seen a tidal wave of punters making Premier League match predictions in favour of the Blues, and the looming European campaign should be no different. Indeed, even a scrappy win by a solitary goal with a rotated side will see the first, reactionary murmurings of discontent from the Matthew Harding stand.
In addition to sounding like the sort of extortionate top-shelf mixer one might expect to find in and around Sloane Square, MOL Vidi are arguably the weakest link in the group. The Hungarian outfit, formerly known as Videoton, has only made it to the group stage on one previous occasion. That was in 2012/13, and though a third place finish saw them eliminated – with ‘nul points’ from all three away fixtures – a 3-0 home victory over Sporting Lisbon served as a stark reminder that all opposition should be taken seriously.
With MOL Vidi teams winning just once in 13 away matches in a competitive European match, a Chelsea win is inevitable. However, the thrashings by three or more goals expected to be seen on MOL
Vidi’s track record are largely infrequent. In fact, such a losing margin has been yielded only three times since MOL Vidi’s maiden European campaign of 1974/75.
Furthermore, MOL Vidi’s only competitive trip to English soil so far was in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup, where they lost 1-0, but prevailed after a penalty shootout from a 1-1 aggregate scoreline. For
Chelsea, meanwhile, this match represents a piece of history, with no Blues side yet tangling with opposition from Hungary.
May 2013 – Chelsea win the Europa League
Confidence over complacency
As for Chelsea’s home openers in European competition, the last two seasons have been as perfect as anything. Two straight wins to nil and ten goals scored – including a 6-0 win against Qarabag last year – is a sign that the lowest ranked teams should cause no trouble. Prior to that, however, a 1-1 draw with Schalke was further preceded by a 2-1 home loss to Basel in 2013/14.
That is, in fact, Chelsea’s only home defeat in a group stage of any European competition since the turn of the decade. As will be the case with the opener at PAOK, Sarri has license to give some of the less experienced – or more peripheral – players a run out. Doing so is crucial, given how complacent the dressing room became under Antonio Conte in 2017/18.
Chelsea are fair game to win the Europa League, but so too are Arsenal and Sevilla if current odds are taken at face value. Arguably, Marseille (Europa finalists last season), Bayer Leverkusen and Villarreal – not to mention those set to drop out of the Champions League in December – are also worthy of consideration.
It’s all to play for, but whether Sarri and his charges choose to see that as a positive, rather than a fear factor, is entirely up to them.