Rarely has a routine 3-1 win in the Europa League been so dominant, so elegant, so fun.
In an hour and a half on a breezy Thursday night, Chelsea quashed the well-worn adage that Europe’s secondary competition is nothing but a humdrum procession of drabness, and breathed colour into the grey.
It was a performance bearing the stamp of coach Mauricio Sarri, his philosophy embodied and epitomised by one player, Ruben Loftus-Cheek. This was Rolls-Royce football, beauty and brevity at once manifest in a scintillating marriage of flair and steely competence, a rip-roaring exhibition of attacking excellence awash with feints, flicks and nutmegs. This was edge-of-your-seat entertainment.
If BATE Borisov had arrived in London with anything resembling a game plan, it was blown to smithereens within two minutes. Davide Zappacosta’s low centre was met by Loftus-Cheek’s sweeping finish, and so the tone was set for what would become a lesson in humility for the Belarusians.
Loftus-Cheek’s second came moments later, his neat side-footed volley the premature nail in BATE’s proverbial coffin. And while Chelsea often failed to capitalise on their attacking dominance throughout the rest of the first half, this would ultimately prove to be a slow and painful death for Alaksey Baha’s side.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this current Chelsea team is the marked contrast in style since Sarri replaced Antonio Conte.
Where once pragmatism ruled, the Blues’ new no-holds-barred approach is a breath of fresh air around Stamford Bridge. For Chelsea to play with such grace and elegance, with Eden Hazard given a spectator’s role, speaks volumes of the effect Sarri has had on this squad.
Suddenly, all 11 starters seem buoyed by their attacking potential. Cesc Fabregas and Mateo Kovacic, two traditionally deep-lying midfielders, were taking it in turns to drive at BATE’s rearguard. Full-backs Emerson and Zappacosta became auxiliary wingers, allowing Pedro and Willian the freedom to drift into open spaces.
As pronounced as Chelsea’s attacking intent is, there’s always a degree of measure. BATE’s best moments came on the counter, and yet the hosts never seemed outnumbered nor in danger.
Sarri’s side is one as comfortable making a gritty, professional foul as piecing together an intricate attacking sequence. This Chelsea team blends the fun of a cosmopolitan with all the balance and maturity of an aged scotch.
The early lead offered the freedom to experiment in attack. Loftus-Cheek’s two goals were the sharp and sweet appetisers before the long, savoured main course, as each attack brought forth another burst of flavour, every lavish flick and feint a new lesson in flair.
In some ways, the fact that the first-half did not turn into an all-out rout, as it could and possibly should have, made Chelsea’s performance all the more absorbing. There’s a certain mystique to the not-quite perfect.
It didn’t take long for Loftus-Cheek to complete his unlikely hat-trick in the second half, his low, placed finish eluding the dive of Scherbitski in the BATE goal. The 22 year-old himself seemed unsure of how to celebrate the feat, sheepishly raising his arms to the air, as if stunned that it should be he who is Chelsea’s goalscoring hero.
But in a sense, Loftus-Cheek has the potential to be the perfect Sarri player, his movement with and without the ball mesmeric at times. He is a mystery thriller of a midfielder, suddenly driving through the gears when you least expect it, jinking and weaving through defenders as though they were training ground cones.
BATE Borisov failed to contain him, allowing him to dangle his hypnotic pendulum before their eyes. Time and again he evaded their desperate challenges, leaving fluorescent yellow shirts flailing.
There are few more popular players at Stamford Bridge. His name garnered the biggest cheer as the teams were read out before kick-off. His name was sung more than any other.
With Chelsea’s youth academy producing such fine yields, there seems a desperation among supporters for one to become a mainstay in the first team. Loftus-Cheek possesses all the requisite attributes, and after a successful loan spell at Crystal Palace and the experience of a World Cup, perhaps now is the time for him to stand up and be noticed.
Aleksey Rios’ late goal provided some consolation for the visitors, but in truth it is nothing but a footnote. After two solid, if uninspiring 1-0 victories over PAOK and Vidi respectively in the Europa League prior, this was the game where Sarri’s side truly hit top gear.
In truth, Chelsea are above the Europa League. They should be rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite, but now find themselves ensnared in what is oft regarded as an intrusion on the weekly equilibrium at professional clubs.
But both they and Arsenal have proved this season that the Europa League boasts qualities the Champions League cannot. There is the opportunity to give playing time to younger or fringe players, for fans to see their side hand out a good spanking, to relax and simply enjoy football, free from the frantic importance of the weekly Premier League fare.
Meanwhile, the likes of Spurs and Man United have toiled in the Champions League, flapping and floundering in a vain attempt to keep their respective heads above water, battling against the humiliation of a potential group-stage exit.
Players like Loftus-Cheek arguably would not have such a chance if Chelsea were in the Champions League. Arsenal’s now 11 match unbeaten run would arguably not be so if they were playing stronger opposition each midweek.
At a time when the Champions League group stage has become increasingly denuded of its allure through predictability and repetition, perhaps we ought to take joy in the simple pleasures its little brother affords.