A single Willian goal scored early in the game gave Chelsea our first-ever win over Greek opposition on their own soil, and a solid start to our debut group-stage venture in the Europa League.
It was a thoroughly merited victory on a balmy night near the coast in Greece’s second city. According to the competition’s seedings, this fixture is our hardest of the six Euro games we play before Christmas, but in common with many of our Premier League outings so far in 2018/19, we dominated possession, having 68 per cent of the ball and spending most of the game attacking, apart from a short spell of pressure near the end.
Only some wayward finishing prevented a more convincing scoreline, but we have the three points to take back to the UK. On top of all that, it is six wins out of six at the start of the Sarri era.
The boss made five changes to the line-up but still named an experienced team, although Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal was playing the first UEFA competition game of his career.
David Zappacosta and Andreas Christensen were handed their first starts of the season in defence, Ross Barkley was added to the recent regular midfield and Willian and Pedro were chosen to flank Alvaro Morata in attack.
The early stages of this game were always going to be about Chelsea taking a little of the sting out of the occasion, having been greeted onto the pitch by some impressive noise, plus flares and thick smoke.
Those clouds died away but the singing from the bare-chested gathering behind one goal never really did, not even when we landed our first punch with only six minutes played.
Willian’s goal probably had a more deflating effect on the PAOK players than it did on the crowd. Their midfielders were left trailing behind when Barkley burst onto a ball in the centre of the park. He advanced and spread it out to the left where Willian, wearing the skipper’s armband tonight, had timed his run to a tee. The scorer of our most recent goal in the Premier League swept home our first of this season’s European campaign with his right foot, via a touch off the goalkeeper.
Morata could have doubled the lead three minutes later but headed a Pedro cross wide and from a more difficult position later on he shot across goal having been found by a Toni Rudiger ball over the top.
The Blues, in yellow tonight, were utterly dominating, finding plenty of space to attack out wide. Our corners were causing the Greeks problems too. After what felt like an age of measured Chelsea possession in the home team’s half, PAOK at last began to mount an attack.
The ball was quickly nicked back from them and Marcos Alonso was away! A pass was thread superbly forward to Pedro, one-on-one, but the keeper saved with his knees. From the corner, Morata was a whisker away from heading in our second. There were just over five minutes to go to the break which duly arrived, with the only question mark over our performance being how we were not further ahead.
Pedro to Barkley to Willian, square across the penalty box, was how Chelsea manufactured our first shot of the second half, but unlike the one at the start of the first period, this time Paschalakis in goal got enough of a block on it.
Pedro pressing won the ball back in the PAOK penalty area. His cross eventually fell the way of Willian who blasted over the bar. Again the finishing was not matching the rest of our play.
Alonso left one defender on the floor with a nifty swivel but had his goal-bound shot sent wide by another’s diving block, and it took a good save to keep out Pedro with 20 minutes left to play.
Cesc Fabregas came on for his first football since the Community Shield with Cesar Azpilicueta and Olivier Giroud also introduced late on, as we successfully completed the victory and inflicted PAOK’s first home defeat by an English club.
The game ended on a concerning note however when a loose touch and a push in the back resulted in Pedro colliding heavily with the PAOK goalie. He was able to walk from the pitch aided, but was clearly in pain.
That apart it had been smooth as single-goal victories go, and having made a long journey which included for many prolonged time on coaches to take them to the ground, it had been a rewarding game for the Chelsea fans at the other end of the stadium from the bulk of the home support.
Next up in this competition for Maurizio Sarri’s side is a home game against Vidi from Hungary in a fortnight’s time.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Arrizabalaga; Zappacosta, Rudiger, Christensen, Alonso (Azpilicueta 65), Kante, Jorginho (Fabregas 65), Barkley; Pedro, Morata (Giroud 81), Willian (c).
Unused subs Caballero, Cahill, Loftus-Cheek, Moses.
Scorer Willian 6
Booked Barkley 90, Rudiger 90
PAOK Paschalakis; Vieirinha (c), Khacheridi, Varela, Tosca; Mauricio, Shakov (Prijovic 69), Wernbloom; Jaba (Biseswar 82), Pelkas (Warda 62), El Kaddouri.
Unused subs Rey, Crespo, Limnios, Canas.
Booked Wernbloom 88, Warda 90, El Kaddouri 90+3
Referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco from Spain.