Jonathan Calleri’s hat-trick clinched a 3-2 victory for Espanyol over Wolves in this Europa League second-leg encounter, but the damage had already been done in their 4-0 defeat at Molineux.
Away goals from Adama Traore and Matt Doherty killed off the tie, making it 3-6 on aggregate to the Premier League side and leaving Espanyol to focus on their fight against relegation from La Liga. They are currently rock bottom in the table, five points from safety.
The Barcelona-based club marked a return to the European stage after 12 years this season by topping their Europa qualifying group with 11 points from a possible 18, creating confidence for the round of 32 knockout phase.
However, the dreams of the 1,200 ‘pericos’ who travelled to England for the first leg against Wolves were dashed as Diego Jota scored three times and Ruben Neves also found the net to create a seemingly unassailable lead in the tie.
Abelardo Fernandez’s team were, though, given hope on home soil by Calleri’s opener just past the quarter-hour mark, only to see the visitors reply through the dangerous Traore in the 22nd minute.
Calleri, on loan from Deportivo Maldonado, restored Espanyol’s lead from the spot in the 57th minute after Max Kilman raised his boot his on David Lopez.
In a feisty encounter which saw six yellow cards, Wolves were able to sit back, with their hosts having 63% possession and double the number of passes.
But pressing forward left Espanyol vulnerable on the counter, and Doherty duly made it 2-2 from Daniel Podence’s cross with 11 minutes remaining. Calleri’s winner came via a header in the first minute of added time.
Afterwards, Abelardo said he took heart from Espanyol’s fighting display, adding: “Today the fans have seen again the team they want.”
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.
Six years ago, Inter Milan were winning Serie A, the Champions League and Italian Cup while Southampton languished in League One after nearly going bust and being in administration.
So what a thrill it was for Saints fans (including myself) to travel to the San Siro and see them outplay the European giants in the Europa League. If only we hadn’t lost…
Qualifying for Europe adds something special to a season, and a rare chance to watch your team take on the one of the game’s biggest names is something not to be missed.
So when my friends invited on a four-night trip to Milan it was definitely something I had to do – albeit as cheaply as possible.
The first thing needed was a cheap flight, and Ryanair flies to Milan Bergamo, about an hour outside the city. Then came tracking down the most budget accommodation that central Milan had to offer – Queen’s Hostel.
Arriving at Stansted to travel out the day before the game, it was surprising to see so many Southampton shirts at the airport – but then I guess everyone had the same idea of looking for bargain flights.
The sense of excitement among the fans was already evident, and made the usual boring slog through security and passport control less of a chore.
The flight itself was packed with Saints supporters, some of who spent the whole journey singing songs whilst the beers kept coming.
This wasn’t your average away trip to Stoke or West Brom – we were heading to Milan to cheer our team on in one of Europe’s most famous stadiums.
The following day, the visiting supporters tended to group around either the San Siro or the clubs and bars of Navigli in the build-up to the game.
The city centre, where there are some spectacular sights such as the Duomo di Milano, is definitely worth a gander but it’s a bit of a tourist trap and better suited to those with budgets slightly bigger than mine.
Of course, as English football fans looking for home comforts, many of the Saints supporters located an English-style pub screening Sky Sports.
Unfortunately, trouble there a few days before meant it was closed to them in the run-up to that evening’s game.
It didn’t dampen spirits too much, however, as 7,500 away fans – around 13 percent of Southampton’s population – generated a real buzz in Milan’s bars and restaurants.
Arriving at the San Siro, it felt like a home game at St Mary’s in some respects as everywhere you looked there was Saints fans.
Inter, who have been overshadowed by Juventus in recent years, were in poor form going into the match and struggling to get decent crowds.
The English contingent made up over a quarter of the evening’s overall attendance, and created plenty of noise in the two-thirds empty stadium as Saints dominated the game.
However, the Premier League outfit were left to rue several missed chances as Antonio Candreva popped up with a 67th-minute strike against the run of play.
The hosts hung on for the win, despite the late dismissal of Marcelo Brozovic, and Southampton and their travelling army of fans were left distinctly deflated by the defeat.
But the disappointment was eased by the fact that we had outplayed our illustrious opponents on their own ground, and the night was still young.
Unfortunately, many of the bars we tried were pretty unaffordable while others had closed early to avoid any rowdiness, so the day ended in anti-climax.
For the remainder of our stay, we explored the city, soaked up some local culture and, of course, sampled the food which was of the highest quality.
You can actually eat pretty cheaply in Milan if you look hard enough, and for just €9 you can get a pizza so large it won’t even fit on your plate.
This is one of my favourite parts of an away trip – the opportunity to check out a new city, to experience adventures and do things that you might not have ever done without football taking you there in the first place.
The trip ended on an uncomfortable note, sleeping in the airport as we waited for out flight home at an ungodly hour. I guess it just shows what you’ll put up with to go and support your team.
If you can afford it – and it can be done on a tight budget – I really recommend trip like ours.
Experiencing the delights and sights of a new city with your mates while indulging your love of football is something you won’t forget.
Chris Millar was the golden boy once but, as he enters the latter stages of his professional career, he is becoming more like the olden boy.
At the age of 33, the St Johnstone midfielder is no longer a man in a hurry, content to play a waiting game and win back his place in the Saints’ first team.
The man nicknamed ‘Midge’, is undoubtedly one of the most colourful and passionate figures in Scottish football.
In a career spanning 13 years, which began training alongside the likes of Henrik Larsson at Celtic and is now approaching its end, Millar has never been too far away from the headlines.
Whether it was winning St Johnstone their first-ever Scottish Cup in 2014, experiencing European football in the Europa League or contemplating a move to Australia, his career has been eventful.
However off the pitch, the Glasgow-born player is forging as impressive career for himself as a sports journalist.
“Ultimately, my hope is to host something, a bit like Gary Lineker. Whether that happens or not time will tell, but like anything it’s about opportunity and working hard to create that”
After working for broadcasters including BT Sport, Millar is optimistic about the future and once he decides to hang up his boots.
The former Greenock Morton player is setting his sights high in a career in broadcasting.
“I think there is definitely a realisation that life after football has to be planned for,” admits Millar.
“Not every player earns the money that will keep them ticking for the rest of their days, especially in Scotland.
“Many players are aware of it and are making plans once their career is over, and the PFA are doing a great job in highlighting this issue.”
Despite the criticism that former players get once they land a role in the media, Millar insists that he wants to try and change the views of professional footballers.
“I think at times some players think there is an agenda within the media to sell units,” he says.
“As a former player, I do not have an agenda to push. I just want to report the events as honestly as I can and try to open up the game more to the public.
“My main aim is to show the public about what goes on at football clubs with players, managers, etc.
“I enjoy most aspects of journalism like writing, broadcasting both radio and TV. I have done work in all three and I have held down a slot as a pundit on radio and I work for a national paper.
“Ultimately, my hope is to host something, a bit like Gary Lineker. Whether that happens or not time will tell, but like anything it’s about opportunity and working hard to create that.”
For many players, their first port after retirement is to become a coach or manager. After initially contemplating this, Millar chose to broaden his horizons – and he says completing a degree at Staffordshire University was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“I have always wanted to stay involved in the game,” he says. “It’s all I have known since I was a 17-year-old at Celtic so it is important for me to stay involved.
“As a pro, I think you can relate more to players as you’ve been through many of the things they go through so it gives you an insight that not many journalists have”
“When I saw that I could do a sports broadcasting degree whilst still playing, it got me thinking, so it really came from there.
“Many players want to go into coaching so there is only going to be so many jobs going around. I enjoy using my brain and learning new skills so for me it is interesting to use a different skills-set.
“As a pro, I think you can relate more to players as you’ve been through many of the things they go through so it gives you an insight that not many journalists have.”
Most individuals would struggle to manage their professional and academic lives, but Millar has balanced both and he says even though it was difficult, it was worth it in the end.
“It was tough, don’t get me wrong,” admits the Scot.
“Juggling footy, two kids and a degree takes time and effort. However, in the end it paid off as I gained a first class degree. By using my brain again, I enjoyed learning a whole new skill set.
“The funny thing is that I played some of my best football whilst studying. It gave my mind something else to focus on – it’s good to have a release from that.”
The return of the Old Firm
With the return of Rangers to Scotland’s top division, the competition in the league has gained an intensity that it had been missing in recent years.
Despite the likes of Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers being touted as the ‘big boys’, Millar’s St Johnstone have continued to progress under manager Tommy Wright, a journey Millar says will continue.
“We’ve been up there the last few seasons and as a club we now see ourselves as a top four side, so we will continue to improve and progress as a team.”
“The return of Rangers has been huge for Scottish football,” he says.
“They bring a bigger spotlight to the league and obviously you have the Old Firm derby back which is a huge game. As a player, you want to play in front of big crowds and I have honestly missed playing at Ibrox.
“We [St Johnstone] have started well but ultimately I do not think we can win the league. However, I do not see any reason to why we cannot challenge for the other top four spots.
“We’ve been up there the last few seasons and we now see ourselves as a top four side, so we will continue to improve and progress.”
Scotland’s World Cup adventure
Looking at the national team, Scotland’s qualification campaign for the Russia 2018 World Cup has not been going well, and in November manager Gordon Strachan faces a huge test – against England, at Wembley.
“Results have not been good enough ultimately,” says Millar.”I compare ourselves to teams of the other home nations and when I look at them, man for man we have as much if not more talent than them yet they have just been to the Euros and we have not. That is not good enough,” he says.
“The last two results in the qualifiers were poor and it means we must now go onto beat England. If we lose that then for me, Strachan must go.”
As Millar points out, Scotland have a number of star players and one of the most highly-regarded is former Nottingham Forest and current RB Leipzig player Oliver Burke.
His goal for Leipzig against FC Koln made the 19-year-old Scotland international the first Scot to score in the Bundesliga since Brian O’Neil for VFL Wolfsburg in November 1999.
“He has all the physical attributes needed in modern football,” insists Millar. “He is athletic, quick and he can score.
“He is still very young and he has a long way to go but I think going to Germany will enhance his learning. More players should try to play abroad as I think it can only enhance your development as a player.”
Not calling it quits yet
Despite his age and planning for the longer term, Millar insists he is not yet done with playing football.
“I have been at the club for nine years and had some amazing memories and success with St Johnstone”
“I have an ambition to play as long as I can as I love the game and feel I still have plenty to offer,” says the midfielder.
“I had issues with injuries last season but that is behind me. There is still life in my legs yet and I do not feel that I am off the pace. When I do feel that, then that is the time to stop.
“I am fit now and have been for most of the season so far, so I am ready to play when called upon. I know when I get back in the team, I will play well and then get my chance again.
“I have been at the club for nine years and had some amazing memories and success with St Johnstone. I have achieved things that I wanted in my career like playing in Europe, winning trophies and playing at the highest level in Scotland.
“It is a fantastic community-based club with loyal fans who have made me feel like one of them. It will always have a place in my heart.”
For as long as anyone can remember, it has been common practice in UK football broadcasting to hire cliche-mumbling ex-professionals who bore viewers on a regular basis.
TV producers believe that only veterans who have been there and done it can provide insight into the game. Sometimes they do, but fans also have to put up with mind-numbingly obvious analysis from pundits such as Jamie Redknapp and Michael Owen.
It’s a failed logic, that being an expert at playing the game automatically makes you an expert at reading and talking about it. Within weeks of their retirement, the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes are placed on our screens.
Producers must have had no idea if they will do well or not, but the logic applied because they were great players.
Last year Sky ran endless adverts announcing that Thierry Henry was joining their ‘team’, highlighting some of his mesmerising goals and rightfully showing that he was one of the greatest players our league has ever seen.
However, his main contribution has been lots of long, rambling sentences that has offered little or zero input into the games we’ve been watching.
Of course, it’s wrong to pretend that only one type of footballer-turned-pundit exists. In the latest generation there are several that offer a lot to their viewers, the likes of Jermaine Jenas, Danny Higginbotham and Gary Neville (before his step into management) stand out.
The reason for this is because they clearly do their research and try to offer more than just the obvious analysis that any true fan can already see.
“Fans don’t want to be treated like children who don’t understand the game because they never played it professionally”
Despite an increase in these type of pundits over recent years, broadcasters have still stuck to their old ways, picking mundane legends of the game for the top live games.
And this is why BT Sport’s European goals show has been such a welcome addition to the sporting television schedules.
The show is anchored by James Richardson, a fan favourite ever since he hosted Channel 4’s Football Italia show in the 1990s, supported by journalists Julien Laurens, Rafael Honigstein and James Horncastle.
Right off the bat, you can see that all of these guys know what they’re talking about – they offer a real depth of knowledge of players and teams that most English viewers will not know much about.
However it’s not just the fact that they’re journalists and not ex-pros that makes them so valuable. There’s a real chemistry at work as they debate teams, players, managers, clubs and the game itself. They’re also very comfortable in front of the camera, an attribute that is often overlooked in this industry.
The same team also feature in BT Sport’s Champions League goals show, a programme that British TV has needed for a long time.
Similar to the NFL’s Redzone, it offers viewers the option of watching the best bits from every game as it happens. A very simple and effective idea that no one has come up with in the UK until now.
The programme is great however because it offers so much more than just highlights of the goals as they go in. Julian, Rafael and James give viewers the chance to learn about these great European teams we have been in awe of for so many years.
For far too long coverage of European games in this country has focused fully on the English teams involved – understandable perhaps a few years ago but less forgivable these days.
English fans already know all there is to know about their teams, and are enquiring enough to want to learn more about why an impressive Borussia Dortmund side won, than why Tottenham lost.
Fans don’t want to be treated like children who don’t understand the game because they never played it professionally.
They want knowledge from people who know what they’re talking about, have worked hard to get to the top of their profession and who are deep down, fans who love and are invested in the game as much as us.
That’s a criteria that BT Sport’s European coverage has met perfectly. It’s the perfect example of what an industry has needed for a long time.