Chelsea’s happy knack of scoring late winning goals in Prague continued tonight as Marcos Alonso’s header four minutes from time decided the first leg of this Europa League quarter-final tie.
The Spaniard carefully nodded in Willian’s deep cross to give us a big advantage heading back to the Bridge in a week’s time, and replicate our previous triumphs in the Czech capital. In both 2003 and 2013 goals in the final 10 minutes secured the Blues 1-0 victories.
Tonight's game was shorn of clear chances and looked for the most part like it would end goalless. Willian hit the bar in the first half and Toni Rudiger had a volley well saved after the break, while for us Kepa Arrizabalaga made a couple of decent second-half stops to ensure a third straight clean sheet this month, and a fourth in a row in the Europa League.
Our impressive record in the competition continues, and even though we didn’t have it all our own way tonight, unlike previous outings, we still return to London victorious.
All eyes on Anfield now.
As expected, Maurizio Sarri rung the charges with this one of three games in seven days. In total there were seven new faces in the side from the win over West Ham: Andreas Christensen, Alonso, Ross Barkley, Mateo Kovacic, Pedro, Willian and Olivier Giroud. There was no place for Callum Hudson-Odoi in the 18.
Slavia opted for Peter Olayinka up front and not Milan Skoda. Petr Sevcik came in for the suspended Tomas Coucek in midfield.
Chelsea kicked off attacking the end that was partially closed as a punishment for crowd trouble in Slavia’s round of 32 game against Genk here. Still, the home fans made a racket from the off and they nearly had a goal to celebrate inside 90 seconds. Former Blue Miraslav Stoch whipped over a free-kick that the diving Simon Deli headed wide.
The hosts started at a frenetic pace and it wasn’t until the seventh minute that we enjoyed a sustained spell of possession. It ended with Barkley curling over from distance.
Willian’s speed and trickery enabled him to embark on a couple of threatening runs down our left, but there was no end product to match. Slavia’s intensity remained, and by the midway point of the first half it was clear this would be our sternest test in Europe yet.
On 24 minutes Willian came very close to breaking the deadlock, only to see his fierce effort from the edge of the box rattle off the bar after he had taken Pedro’s pass and cut in from the left. The Brazilian was certainly our brightest spark before the break.
Slavia finished the half as they began it, and it required a crucial interception from Toni Rudiger to stop Sevcik’s pass reaching Olayinka before the whistle blew.
When play restarted on an increasingly cold night in the Czech capital, Alonso had a low cross deflected into the arms of Ondrej Kolar, the hitherto unworked Slavia keeper, and then Giroud shot wide after we took a short corner.
Fluency in the final third remained an issue however and just before the hour Sarri replaced Pedro with Hazard.
Within a minute we had twice almost scored! First Rudiger’s volley from a half-cleared corner was well saved by Kolar with his right boot, and then Willian scurried onto a Giroud flick and flashed wide.
Before Stoch was substituted off in the 64th minute, Rudiger planted a header past the post from Willian’s corner. Our attacking threat had suddenly intensified.
Sarri had spoken about Slavia’s counter-attacking abilities ahead of the game and it was from one such move they forced Kepa into his first significant save of the night, 20 minutes from time. Ibrahim Traore carried the ball from inside his own half with our defence understaffed. His powerful strike from inside the D was athletically parried behind by Kepa.
The Spaniard then got a crucial hand on an inswinging cross as the momentum swung back in the home side’s favour.
N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic and Barkley were our final subs of the night. Could they help us find an away goal in the final quarter-of-an-hour?
In fact it was Kepa next in action, saving well to his right to deny Jan Boril after his initial palm to safety lacked distance.
It looked like this first leg would end in stalemate but up popped Alonso five minutes from time. Willian’s deep cross was an inviting one, and there was the left-back stealing in to calmly guide his header past Kolar from 10 yards out.
Opta's goal replay shows Alonso started the move inside his own half.
A precious away goal and a win to boot made it a job well done. In the other quarter-final on our side of the draw, Benfica beat 10-man Eintracht Frankfurt 4-2 in Lisbon.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Christensen, Rudiger, Alonso; Barkley (Loftus-Cheek 75), Jorginho, Kovacic (Kante 68); Pedro (Hazard 59), Giroud, Willian.
Unused subs Caballero, Zappacosta, David Luiz, Higuain.
Scorer Alonso 86
Slavia Prague (4-2-3-1): Kolar; Coufel, Ngadeu, Deli (c), Boril; Traore, Kral; Sevcik, Stoch (Zmrhal 64), Masopust (Husbauer 74); Olayinka (Van Buren 82).
Unused subs Kovar, Frydrych, Kudela, Skoda.
Booked Coufal 83
Referee Felix Zwayer from Germany