Having made the journey from south-east England to Europe's south-east corner, the Blues are in Thursday evening action. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton continue the Europa League build-up…
The two domestic cup-winners in Group L meet tonight, both with history to uphold: Chelsea have never lost to a Greek team, while PAOK have never been bettered by English opposition.
The Londoners have won five of the past six matches in Europe’s second competition, hitting the net twice or more in each of those games. Maurizio Sarri’s men will be looking to extend the run of two successive victories on the road in this competition (including the 2013 final) to three, for the perfect start to the campaign.
The kick-off time might catch some unawares: 5.55pm UK time. All the Blues’ home fixtures in this round, however, will start at 8pm.
No strangers to the group stage of the Champions League, Chelsea feature for the first time in this round of the Europa League. It may not be Europe’s most exclusive contest, but it is a tournament that brought a lustrous burnish to the club’s prestige.
The 2013 triumph over Benfica in the Amsterdam final – the club’s most recent Europa League action – meant the Blues joined Ajax, Bayern and Juventus in the elite band of clubs to have made a clean sweep of all three main UEFA trophies. The Londoners were the first and only English representatives until Manchester United equalled the feat in 2017.
Chelsea are seeking a sixth successive victory in all competitions.
— Key stat
Now, as a result of forgoing European football entirely in 2016/17, Chelsea are rated the continent’s 20th best team by UEFA’s club coefficient system.
Maurizio Sarri, who steered Napoli to six straight wins in the 2015/16 Europa League group stage, will know that playing arguably the toughest of the six fixtures on day one presents opportunities as well as challenges.
PAOK were drawn from Pot 2 and are ranked 62nd in Europe, two places ahead of BATE Borisov. Vidi, the lowest ranked in 233rd place, are the first visitors to the Bridge in a fortnight, so a win in Greece could set up a flying start and the opportunity maybe to rest players between now and the knockout rounds in February.
The Europa League rules tend to favour teams who find the net, especially on their travels. The top two teams qualify from each group, with head-to-head outcomes deciding the placings. This starts with points between the sides involved, then goal difference, goals scored and, if necessary, away goals scored (a factor that could well come in to play in the tighter groups). Should teams still be level, general goal difference applies.
PAOK are the 78th club the Blues will have encountered in European competition. They hail from Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki – Salonika to the anglophone world. It is cooled by the Aegean, watched over by mount Chortiatis, and a few miles from the glorious beaches of the three-fingered peninsula of Chalkidiki.
It is a place rooted in ancient Greek history. Thessalonike was a Macedonian princess, the step-sister of Alexander the Great. Her father Philip named her in tribute to success on the battlefield in Thessaly in 197 BCE – just like Chelsea’s kit provider, the ‘nike’ part of her name stands for victory.
There is optimism that PAOK’s less ancient warriors are a team on the up under coach Ravzan Lucescu. The former Romania goalkeeper was appointed the summer before last and speaks fluent English in the dressing room to the multinational crew he has assembled. (Even their shirt names are in Greek or Latin script according to the player’s origin.)
Bucharest-born Lucescu has never managed against Chelsea. However his father, Mircea, was in charge of Besiktas and Shakhtar Donetsk in 2003 and 2012 Champions League meetings against us. The Blues won one and lost one against both Lucescu senior’s teams.
The Double-Headed Eagle, as they are nicknamed, retained the Greek Cup in 2017/18 and finished as runners-up in the Superleague to AEK Athens – the team they beat in the final, despite finishing with nine players. The current squad – aggressive, well-drilled defensively and often lethal in attack – arguably have the best chance yet of winning a league title that was last theirs in 1985.
Like Chelsea they have won all their league games to date. On Saturday, a mistake by experienced playmaker Jose Canas gifted newly-promoted Crete the opener, but the visitors eventually ran out 3-1 victors to maintain momentum in fourth place.
Where their record has disappointed is in Europe. Knocked out of this competition at the play-off stage by lowly Ostersund of Sweden in 2017/18, they looked on course to qualify for the Champions League group stage this season for the first time after drawing 1-1 at Benfica. In the second leg at home inexperience told, however, with a penalty and sending-off contributing to their 4-1 defeat and transfer to the Europa League.
Sunday’s hosts West Ham have a clear week following the 3-1 win at Everton that chalked their first league points on the board. Talismanic forward Marko Arnautovic limped away from Goodison but the club suggest he may be fit by the weekend.
After Wednesday’s goalless draw at Bristol, Chelsea Women face another testing WSL trip to Everton on Sunday ahead of Women’s Champions League home action the following midweek, for which tickets are available.
Chelsea Under-19s’ UEFA Youth League campaign begins on Wednesday 3 October against Molde, with the second leg in Norway three weeks later. Whoever succeeds will play the winners of KR (Iceland) versus Elfsborg (Sweden).
Other Group L fixture
Tonight 5.55pm - Vidi v BATE Borisov
THE BEST THAT CAN HAPPEN THIS EVENING…
An heroic start to our European odyssey in the land of mythology.