Qarabag 0, Chelsea 4
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte admitted his relief after victory over 10-man Qarabag confirmed the Blues’ place in the Champions League knockout stage and eased his fixture scheduling concerns.
Two sumptuous goals from forward Willian and penalties converted by Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas in Baku ensured their progress from Group C with a match to spare.
That allows Conte to rotate his squad and lessen the effects of a packed calendar which prompted this week’s outburst from the Italian ahead of Saturday’s Premier League trip to Liverpool.
“To have only one day to rest and prepare is not simple or easy. It is not right,” said Conte, whose team are not due to arrive back in London until 4am on Thursday.
“Now we must be pleased that we reached our first target to go through to the next round. It [the final group game] will be a good chance to have another rotation with the players. It is very positive in a game that I knew wouldn’t be easy.”
Chelsea thumped six past Qarabag when Azerbaijan’s champions visited London in September yet the underdogs almost turned the tables in the early moments, when former Birmingham midfielder Michel smashed a shot against the visitors’ crossbar.
Qarabag, buoyed by successive draws with Atletico Madrid in their previous two group games, saw their hopes effectively dashed in the 19th minute when captain Rashad Sadygov was sent off and a penalty awarded for a push on Willian. Hazard sent goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic the wrong way for his sixth goal in seven matches.
Hazard and Willian combined brilliantly for Chelsea’s second in the 36th minute, the Brazilian feeding the Belgian and running on to his backheeled return pass to slot past Sehic, and the Blues continued to pick off their 10-man opponents after the break.
Sehic saved from Pedro and substitute Alvaro Morata dragged a shot wide before Willian won a second spot-kick for a shirt tug and Fabregas converted a retaken penalty. Willian capped a fine display with his second of the match five minutes from time, whipping a low shot from 20 yards.