Goals in either half from Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud put Chelsea in control of our Europa League tie with Malmo as we recorded our first away win of 2019.
We bossed the game for long periods but it took half an hour to edge in front as Barkley poked home from close range before Giroud doubled the lead with a smart flick at the end of a clinical counter-attack initiated by the England midfield man. It was the Frenchman’s fifth goal of this European campaign.
Malmo provided a determined and physical opposition, but were unable to maintain their pressing for the duration, and the Blues were able to create more opportunities in an assertive second-half display. Giroud, Barkley and Pedro all went close to further extending our lead before the hosts pulled one back 10 minutes from time through Anders Christiansen.
The victory puts us in control of the round of 32 tie with the Swedes due to visit Stamford Bridge in a week’s time for the second leg, but we will need to guard against complacency. The late goal may mean Maurizio Sarri will not be able to rotate his players as he had hoped next week, with other important fixtures to play during this busy period.
Here, Sarri opted to rest N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and Gonzalo Higuain, with Olivier Giroud recalled to start between Pedro and Willian in attack. Andreas Christensen and Emerson Palmieri came in for Toni Rudiger and Marcos Alonso, who did not travel, in defence.
Former Manchester City striker Uwe Rosler, now Malmo manager, named the same side that had played a recent friendly against Dynamo Kiev in Marbella. This was their first competitive fixture for 63 days, since their last Europa League group game, a 1-0 win away at Besiktas.
Any suggestions the hosts would be rusty were quickly put to bed. Under a thick fog brought about by flares in the home end, Malmo started quickly, forcing two corners inside an intense first minute.
Chelsea weathered that early storm though and settled into a rhythm, keeping the ball for long periods to frustrate the vocal home support, who were clearly buoyed by having the Blues in town. We were enjoying plenty of possession, but creating few, if any, clear-cut opportunities. Barkley had one effort blocked and Pedro mishit a through-ball aimed for Giroud, but that was about it for the opening half-hour.
The breakthrough came as soon as we forced an opening. Another spell in possession eventually saw Pedro with time to pick a cross and he found Barkley in space 10 yards out. The midfielder initially miss-controlled but still had time to react and poke the ball beyond Johan Dahlin and into the Malmo net.
It was our first goal on the road in 2019 and a very welcome one, giving us the upper hand in a tie that falls around crunch matches in the FA Cup, Carabao Cup and Premier League.
That advantage was almost taken away immediately as Malmo applied their own pressure, balls bobbling around the Chelsea area with several efforts deflected wide or blocked by Chelsea players. Again though, we survived the scare and despite some hairy moments, Kepa Arrizabalaga had not been forced into a save by the break.
Sarri will have been satisfied enough at half-time, his team had looked comfortable and scored an important away goal.
There was cause for concern early in the second half though as Malmo threatened further, Kepa having to turn an awkward looping effort over the bar after we had been exposed on a counter-attack, and then Arnor Ingvi Traustason’s deflected half-volley flashed just wide of the post
A counter of our own will have eased the Italian’s worries as we went two in front and took firm command of the tie. Barkley broke at pace down the middle, and three on three, he slipped it left to Willian who beat his man and squared for Giroud to flick home.
It was a simple goal but showed Barkley at his best, running through the centre with space to attack, the England man making a smart decision to play in his team-mate and letting Willian and Giroud, who showed impressive hunger to meet the pull-back, do the rest.
Barkley nearly added a third for the Blues after exchanging passes with Giroud on the edge of the area, but saw his shot tipped over the bar by Dahlin, and then he played in Pedro only to watch the Spaniard’s effort clip a defender and fly just wide.
We looked to be in total control, so Sarri will have been frustrated to see Malmo pull a goal back that was entirely avoidable. David Luiz’s pass was cut out and the hosts broke, eventually playing in Christiansen who took a touch before slotting past Kepa.
The late goal will have been a frustration for the coach, who would have wanted a clean sheet to keep the gap going into the second leg, but we return to England as strong favourites to progress to the last 16.
Next, it is more knockout competition as Manchester United visit the Bridge on Monday night before the return leg on Thursday.
Malmo (4-4-2): Dahlin, Vindheim, Nielsen, Bengtsson, Safari; Traustason (Lewicki 70), Christiansen (Gall 81), Bachirou, Rieks; Antonsson (Strandberg 70), Rosenberg (c).
Unused subs Melicharek, Larsson, Binaku, Ahmedhodzic.
Scorer Christiansen 80
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Christensen, David Luiz, Emerson; Barkley, Jorginho (Kante 74), Kovacic; Pedro (Hudson-Odoi 85), Giroud, Willian (Hazard 71).
Unused subs Caballero, Rudiger, Zappacosta, Higuain.
Scorers Barkley 30, Giroud 58
Referee Aleksei Kulbakov (Belarus)