PAOK vs Chelsea – Thursday, September 20, 17:55BST/18:55 CEST – Stadio Toumba, Thessaloniki, Greece
Chelsea will be welcomed to a fiery Stadio Toumba on Thursday. Home to the Greek side PAOK the Toumba is one of the most atmospheric stadiums in European football. The Futbolgrad Network visited the ground in May and was thoroughly impressed by the atmosphere created by PAOK supporters. But there is more to PAOK than its loyal support.
Based in Greece’s second-biggest city, Thessaloniki, PAOK has something in common with Chelsea. Both clubs are owned by Russian oligarchs. But while Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is a frequent visitor to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis will not be seen anywhere close to the stadium on Thursday night.
Savvidis received a three-season ban after storming the field during PAOK’s home game against AEK Athens with a gun holstered to his belt. Pictures of that incident went around the globe and ultimately meant that AEK was rewarded the three points from that match, which in turn cost PAOK the Greek championship.
Politics in many ways overshadowed what was a fantastic year for PAOK in the league. But even though PAOK ultimately finished second, it was a tremendous season for the club on the pitch. A season that the Dikefalos tou Vorrá almost managed to crown by qualifying for the Champions League this summer. Knocking out Basel and Spartak Moscow in Champions League qualifying PAOK held Benfica to a 1-1 draw in Lisbon before suffering a surprise 1-4 defeat in Salonika in the return match.
Drawn into a group with Chelsea, however, somewhat makes up for the disappointment of having missed out on Europe’s premier competitions. For Chelsea, in the meantime, the competition will be somewhere between an annoyance and an additional path to qualify for the Champions League depending on how league results will go for the London based club.
The Blues qualified for the group stage of the competition after finishing fifth in the EPL and winning the FA Cup. The triumph in the FA Cup, however, was not enough to save Antonio Conte’s job at the of the season. The Italian coach had won the EPL in 2016/17 but a poor season in the league ultimately meant that he received his walking papers from Abramovich.
Maurizio Sarri replaced him. Sarri coached Napoli last season and came close to break Juventus’ lock on the Serie A title. Now he is in charge of getting Chelsea back in the Champions League, and Sarri seems to prioritise the league over the international competition this year. As a result, it is expected that Chelsea will heavily rotate their squad from last weekend’s fixture against Cardiff City (4-1).
Expect Willian, Cesc Fabregas and Ross Barkley to rotate into the side. Furthermore, there have been rumours that Davide Zappacosta and Emerson Palmieri could be given a chance in the Europa League. PAOK, in the meantime, is expected to start with their full strength eleven, which would promise a fascinating matchup between the two sides but ultimately Chelsea will be the favourites even if Sarri elects to start a few fringe players.
PAOK vs Chelsea – Players to look out for:
Aleksandar Prijović #9 – PAOK
Aleksandar Prijović missed Saturday’s game against OFI Crete with an injury. But the Serbian striker is expected to return on Thursday against Chelsea. “Good news Aleksandar Prijović took part in most of the training session today for the first time since being injured and is in line for a return,” an official statement on PAOK’s homepage read. The 28-year-old Serbian-Swiss striker was in sensational form for PAOK last season scoring 19 goals and three assists in 27 Greek Super League games.
Willian #22 – Chelsea
Willian is expected to be among the players to be rotated into the side on Thursday. The Brazilian came on in the second half against Cardiff and was among the scorers in Chelsea’s 4-1 triumph. It was his fifth appearance this season and his first goal – he also has two assists to his name. But many expected that the 30-year-old would move on at the end of last season. Willian saw his relationship with Conte break down and only the coaching change convinced him to stay in London. “It was very difficult to work with [Conte],” Willian told the media in August. The Brazilian seems to fit in better in Sarri’s system. “We now have a different style. The coach told us to play, to have fun on the pitch but with responsibility”, Willian added. When in form the Brazilian is among the best players in the world on his position and will be a joy to watch on Thursday in Greece.
PAOK vs Chelsea – Match Stats
- Although the teams have never met, they both have favourable records against opposition from the other’s country, each winning two and drawing two of their four matches.
- At home PAOK have won one and drawn one against English clubs – both from London – and are yet to concede, whereas Chelsea have held their hosts to draws on both their previous two trips to Greece.
- Chelsea could finish only fifth in defence of their Premier League title last season, but they booked a first-ever place in the UEFA Europa League group stage twice over by also winning the FA Cup for the eighth time, defeating Manchester United 1-0 in the final.
- Although the west London side are new to this stage of the UEFA Europa League, they won the competition on their only previous participation, in 2013, having crossed over to the knockout phase in mid-season from the UEFA Champions League.
- Chelsea are without a win in four European matches following their UEFA Champions League round of 16 exit to Barcelona last season. They have lost two of their last three continental away fixtures 3-0.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: PAOK vs Chelsea – 1-2
PAOK vs Chelsea – Lineups
Paschalakis – Vierinha, Crespo, Varela, Léo Matos – Mauricio, Wernbloom, Cañas – Biseswar, Prijović, Léo Jabá
Head Coach: Razvan Lucescu
Caballero – Palmieri, Christensen, Cahill, Zappacosta – Barkley, Kanté, Fabregas – Hudson-Odoi, Morata, Willian
Head Coach: Maurizio Sarri
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.