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Preview: Chelsea vs. PAOK - prediction, team news, lineups

Sports Mole provides team news, predicted lineups and a full preview of Thursday's Europa League tie between Chelsea and PAOK at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea will be aiming to extend their perfect record in Europa League Group L when they welcome PAOK to Stamford Bridge on Thursday evening.

The Blues are already assured of a place in the last 32 of the competition and can make certain of top spot by avoiding defeat against the Greek side.


Willian celebrates his opener during the Europa League group game between PAOK and Chelsea on September 20, 2018© Reuters

In what is their first ever participation in the Europa League group stage, Chelsea have progressed through to the first knockout stage with minimal fuss, winning four from four ahead of this visit of PAOK.

Following a tricky but deserved 1-0 win in the reverse fixture two months ago, secured through an early Willian goal at the Stadio Toumbas, Chelsea saw off Hungarian minnows Videoton by the same scoreline and then earned back-to-back wins over BATE Borisov.

It leaves the Blues way out in front at the top of the Group L standings, six points better off than closest challengers Vidi, who have just an outside chance of taking first place off the Premier League giants.

Maurizio Sarri therefore has the luxury of rotating his side for this fifth European matchday, though his side's disappointing run of form may tempt the Italian to field a stronger lineup against PAOK with the aim of picking up a first win in three matches.

Chelsea may be flying in Europe, but they have won just three of their last eight Premier League matches and were comfortably beaten 3-1 by Tottenham Hotspur last weekend, seeing them fall to fourth place in the table.

A lack of momentum will be a concern to Sarri, who has repeatedly pointed out that his squad is not strong enough to compete with Manchester City at the summit, so getting back to winning ways on Thursday is all the more important.

With games against West London rivals Fulham, now managed by former Blues boss Claudio Ranieri, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Man City to come in quick succession, Sarri's men cannot afford to perform as badly as they did at Wembley Stadium.

This match with PAOK may therefore have come at the perfect time to restore some confidence, with Chelsea winning each of their last five Europa League matches on home soil - four of those by a 3-1 scoreline - and going 13 matches without defeat at Stamford Bridge in European competition.

Getting that Tottenham result out of the system, as well as nailing down top spot in Group L with a game to spare, is now the immediate priority for Sarri.

Recent form in Europa League: WWWW
Recent form (all competitions): WWWWDL


Alvaro Morata and Mauricio in action during the Europa League group game between PAOK and Chelsea on September 20, 2018© Reuters

PAOK were tipped to provide Chelsea with their sternest tests in Group L, but they have so far managed just three points from a possible 12 and are on the brink of exiting the competition proper at the first hurdle.

The Greek side's only win and only goals came against BATE on matchday two, when coming away from the Borisov Arena with a 4-1 triumph.

They have failed to push on since then, however, losing 2-0 and 1-0 at home and away to Vidi, leaving them three points behind the Hungarian outfit and with their fate no longer in their own hands.

A failure to win at Stamford Bridge, coupled with a Vidi draw against BATE, would bring PAOK's European adventure to an end for another year. Victory for Vidi away at BATE in the early kickoff, meanwhile, will render this fixture a dead rubber for Razvan Lucescu's side.

PAOK retained the Greek cup last season but missed out on a place in both the Champions League and Europa League, so no matter what happens this week, they have already bettered their European return from 2017-18.

Being dumped out of a favourable Europa League group after five, or possibly four, matches is not exactly what Lucescu would have envisaged, however, especially having knocked out Basel and Spartak Moscow in Champions League qualifying, only to then fall short against Benfica in the playoffs.

When making it to the Europa League group phase PAOK tend to do well, progressing through to the knockouts in four of their previous six campaigns, though never further than the last 32.

The Solinka side have won nine and drawn six of their previous 21 away group games in this competition, meanwhile, and their 1-0 reverse at Vidi marked a first loss in five European away matches this season.

Chelsea cannot afford to completely write off the Greek visitors, then, especially as Lucescu's side have hit form with three wins in a row since losing to Vidi, most recently edging out Xanthi last weekend to leave themselves five points clear at the top of the Super League.

Recent form in Europa League: LWLL
Recent form (all competitions): WDLWWW

Team News

Ruben Loftus-Cheek celebrates his third goal of the night in Chelsea's 3-1 win over BATE Borisov on October 25, 2018© Reuters

An injury sustained by Eden Hazard aside, Sarri has a fully-fit squad to choose from on Thursday night.

A number of fringe players are likely to get the nod here, even if top spot is not yet secured, so the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Pedro, Emerson Palmieri and Davide Zappacosta should all return to the fold.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek is also in contention, a month on from scoring a hat-trick in a comfortable win against BATE here, while Olivier Giroud is expected to start instead of Alvaro Morata up top.

In terms of the visitors, Mauricio may return alongside Pontus Wernbloom in defensive midfield if Lucescu continues to chop and change in that department.

Dimitris Pelkas is another in line to return on the back of the loss to Vidi, though Aleksandar Prijovic should continue to lead the line after following up his goal in Serbia's win over Lithuania with a strike against Xanthi.

Meanwhile, Omar El Kaddouri is at risk of missing PAOK's final game should he pick up a yellow card on Thursday evening.

Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Caballero; Zappacosta, Cahill, Christensen, Emerson; Loftus-Cheek, Fabregas, Barkley; Pedro, Giroud, Willian

PAOK possible starting lineup:
Paschalakis; Matos, Varela, Crespo, Tosca; Wernbloom, Mauricio; Limnios, Pelkas, Kaddouri; Prijovic

Head To Head

Chelsea's 1-0 win in Salonika on matchday one was the first meeting between these two clubs in a UEFA competition.

The English side are now unbeaten in five matches against Greek opposition and have won both home games, most recently beating Olympiacos 3-0 in the 2007-08 Champions League last 16.

PAOK have a good record away to Premier League opposition, meanwhile, drawing 1-1 with Arsenal and winning 2-1 at Tottenham Hotspur on their previous two visits to these shores.

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We say: Chelsea 3-0 PAOK

Chelsea have not always been at their best on the continent this season, winning three of their four matches 1-0, but they have ultimately got the job done on each occasion to cruise into the last 32. All that is left now is to secure top spot in Group L, which should not be too much of a problem against a struggling PAOK side.

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Who will win Thursday's Europa League clash between Chelsea and PAOK?

Maurizio Sarri on the touchline during the Premier League game between Chelsea and Crystal Palace on November 4, 2018
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