This was a mismatch from the start, one of those Europa League group games where Chelsea might have lapsed into a stroll and prevailed with just as much to spare, but it still had its moment to savour. The clock had ticked on to the hour-mark with PAOK heaving to repel another of the hosts’ attacks when Gary Cahill and Cesc Fàbregas retrieved possession, with the latter slipping Callum Hudson-Odoi free into space down the left.
The teenager scuttled forward, Léo Matos backing off further with the forward’s every delicate touch, before effortlessly stroking away an early shot with the inside of his right foot. Both defender and goalkeeper had clearly anticipated the effort being angled towards the far post, only for the ball to fizz inside the near post as a startled Alexandros Paschalakis dived forlornly to his right.
Hudson-Odoi has been at this club since the age of eight, his goals propelling dominant youth teams through the system, but this was a first senior reward. His was a broad smile as he slid on his knees into the corner, the England youth international immediately lost beneath a clutter of delighted teammates savouring his success.
This was how the Europa League campaign was supposed to be, with homegrown fringe players, academy graduates desperate for a proper chance, showcasing their talent.
Chelsea have been so dominant in this group, which had been won prior to kick-off courtesy of a 100% record and Vidi’s loss at BATE Borisov, that those overseeing such a productive youth system would have wished their prospects had already been granted greater involvement. Regardless, they will have thrilled at Hudson-Odoi’s excellence, from that classy finish to a belted attempt from distance which cannoned off the crossbar. There was an assist, too, with his pinpoint cross from the right converted by Álvaro Morata late on.
But, as ever, the praise from the management was more restrained. Maurizio Sarri, a sceptic when it comes to Hudson-Odoi’s defensive qualities, saw him thrive against a PAOK team reduced in number early on and outclassed throughout.
“Callum played very well, but the type of match was for his characteristics,” said the Italian. “They were down to 10 men after seven minutes, so we needed only to play in the offensive phase. He’s really very able to do this. But I want to see him in matches where we also need him in the defensive phase.
“I don’t know if he is ready, at 18, for the Premier League, especially in a big team. If he was already ready now to make a difference in a team like Chelsea, he would be the best player in Europe in two or three years’ time.” The implication was clearly that the under-17s World Cup winner is still some distance from that level.
In truth, a player who had featured for only 35 minutes this season prior to this match had been offered the freedom of the hosts’ left flank, with the Greeks undermined by the dismissal of their experienced centre-half Yevhen Khacheridi, for tripping Olivier Giroud as he ambled on to Matos’s slapdash pass.
The standard of the opposition has to be acknowledged when assessing the performances of all Chelsea’s fringe players in a much-changed lineup. But this club still needs moments like this, when Hudson-Odoi torments full-backs, Andreas Christensen is unflustered and authoritative, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek bullying midfield, to fuel the ambition of those in their academy.
Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland, watching on from the sidelines, will have enjoyed this being the first time since April 2014, and a Champions League semi-final against Atlético Madrid, that Chelsea had started four English players in a European game. Loftus-Cheek’s display was also hugely encouraging. His 20 minutes as a substitute against the United States this month represented his only first-team football for three weeks but he glided with menace through feeble opponents throughout, his close control a delight and rasped efforts, brilliantly fingertipped away by Paschalakis at full stretch, serving notice of his quality.
Ethan Ampadu, enticed from Exeter City’s academy, also made an impression off the bench, but this occasion also provided evidence of why those talented youth prospects do not gain regular game-time at this club. Sarri had pointed out in the build-up that he has 28 senior players on the books, many senior internationals, all craving regular game-time. At first glance, Giroud, Fàbregas and Ross Barkley all delivered persuasive arguments for inclusion against Fulham on Sunday, with the Frenchman conjuring two fine left-foot finishes to thrust the team into an unassailable lead before the break. The second, a volley at the back post after Fàbregas had arced one of those glorious trademark passes from deep over Pontus Wernbloom, was particularly impressive.
Yet, even with players of that calibre controlling the contest, Sarri suggested he would revert to type for Sunday’s derby despite the recent loss at Tottenham still playing on his mind. Had his thinking about his selection against Fulham changed as a result of this match? “No. Because, in the last match, the problem was the team. Not one or two players. So I think if there were two different players, it would have been the same. The big problem was the team.” That may have tempered some of the post-match celebrations but, in truth, they could have done no more. The group has been claimed, with this a rout.