MX23RW : Friday, December 14 10:43:27

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

Sports Mole provides predicted lineups, team news and a full match preview of the Europa League encounter between PAOK and Chelsea.

Chelsea head into Thursday's Europa League opener with PAOK looking to extend their winning streak to six matches, having achieved maximum points in the Premier League this season.

PAOK have also enjoyed a 100% start in the Greek top flight, although the club did miss out on a place in the Champions League group stages with a heavy aggregate defeat to Benfica.


PAOK

Chuba Akpom in action for Arsenal in September 2016© Reuters

PAOK have not won a league title since 1985 and have struggled to make much of an impact in European competition over the past decade, but there is every suggestion that this side is ready to become the best team in Greece.

Back-to-back runners-up finishes in the league have been complemented by successive cup triumphs, and a strong start to the domestic campaign has continued the momentum built under Razvan Lucescu.

Much was made of the 4-1 home defeat to Benfica - a result which caused the club to drop into the Europa League - but this is still a team which has already got the better of Basel and Spartak Moscow since the start of the new season.

PAOK were only outsiders to have such success in European football's premier competition, but despite narrowly missing out on a first-ever appearance in the Champions League group stages, excitement and optimism remains at the Toumba Stadium.

A highly-anticipated clash at home to AEK Athens comes three days after the visit of Chelsea, but the Blues will have PAOK's full attention as they hold out hope of having a prolonged run in this tournament.

PAOK have made the round of 32 on two occasions since 2013, but their determination to go deep into this competition is heightened having lost to Swedish minnows Ostersunds FK in the playoff round just over a year ago.

Aleksandar Prijovic - formerly of Derby County, Yeovil Town and Northampton Town - is PAOK's talisman in attack, but Chuba Akpom will be hoping for an opportunity to impress having recently made the switch from Arsenal.

Ex-Swansea City midfielder Jose Canas and former Aston Villa full-back Jose Angel Crespo can also offer experience in English football, but this is a well-rounded team who share the belief that they can upset Chelsea in front of their passionate home supporters.

Recent form (all competitions): DWWLWW


Chelsea

Maurizio Sarri watches on during the pre-season friendly between Chelsea and Arsenal on August 1, 2018© Reuters

Maurizio Sarri has acknowledged that Chelsea have many improvements to make as the season progresses, but the Italian will be delighted having registered five successive victories in the Premier League.

Some of those victories have not been straightforward, with the West Londoners continuing to show weaknesses in defence, but this feels like a rejuvenated squad who have taken a liking to Sarri's offensive-minded approach.

Bigger tests lie ahead for Chelsea and the Premier League will remain Sarri's priority throughout the season as the club look for an instant return to the Champions League, but the Europa League provides Sarri with a realistic chance to win a trophy and make use of his large squad at Stamford Bridge.

Just 14 different players have been handed starts in the Premier League, and that leaves a full side of players who will expect to be provided with an opportunity on the European scene over the coming weeks.

Cesc Fabregas is returning from injury at the right time to improve his match fitness in cup competitions when Sarri is flooded with options in the middle of the pitch, and the likes of Andreas Christensen and Gary Cahill will be relishing the chance of a return to the fold at the back.

However, Chelsea fans will also demand that Sarri looks to the future during the group stages, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Ethan Ampadu and Callum Hudson-Odoi all seemingly ready to be handed responsibility in the senior ranks.

Whether Sarri will be take such a bold approach to the opening game of this competition remains to be seen, but this is arguably Chelsea's opportunity to develop their younger talent in the hope that they can become mainstays in the team in later years.

Chelsea have been handed a favourable group and if they can come through this test on Thursday - their most difficult on paper - then Sarri may be able to afford to make mass changes throughout the remaining five fixtures.

Recent form (all competitions): LWWWWW


Team News

Cesc Fabregas in action for Chelsea on August 7, 2018© Reuters

Sarri has often had to field questions about the happiness of his players, and the Italian has suggested that he is yet to have the opportunity to give chances to all of this squad.

That should come on Thursday as the new head coach is likely to rest the majority of the players who will start Sunday's London derby at West Ham United, with Fabregas, Ross Barkley and Alvaro Morata all expected to begin the game in Greece.

Victor Moses and Davide Zappacosta could take their places on the flank, with Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard potentially being given the night off.

Former Arsenal frontman Akpom will likely have to hope for a chance off the bench with the former England Under-21 international yet to make a start for PAOK.

Omar El Kaddouri - who was at Napoli during Sarri's spell at the club - should line up behind Prijovic in the final third.

PAOK possible starting lineup:
Paschalakis; Matos, Crespo, Varela, Freitas; Silveira Junior, Canas; Lima, El Kaddouri, Biseswar; Prijovic

Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Caballero; Moses, Christensen, Cahill, Palmieri; Ampadu, Fabregas, Barkley; Zappacosta, Pedro, Morata


Head To Head

Thursday's meeting will represent the first-ever competitive clash between the two clubs.

Chelsea have only ever faced Greek opposition on four occasions, with the last fixtures coming a decade ago when they ousted Olympiacos 3-0 on aggregate in the last 16 of the Champions League.

PAOK - like Chelsea - are also unbeaten in four games against teams from the opposition country, with their last contest against an English team ending in a 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in 2011.


Sports Mole Logo

We say: PAOK 1-3 Chelsea

The gulf in class between the clubs could be closed if Sarri opts to select a number of players short on match fitness, but the Blues should still have enough quality in all areas of the pitch to start their European campaign with a comfortable win in Greece.


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

PAOK
Draw
Chelsea
PAOK
5.4%
Draw
3.8%
Chelsea
90.8%
Maurizio Sarri watches on during the pre-season friendly between Chelsea and Arsenal on August 1, 2018
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Tables
TeamPWDLFAGDPTS
1Liverpool1613303462842
2Manchester CityMan City1613214593641
3Tottenham HotspurSpurs16120430161436
4Chelsea16104233132034
5Arsenal16104235201534
6Manchester UnitedMan Utd167542826226
7Everton166642319424
8Bournemouth167272526-123
9Leicester CityLeicester166462120122
10Wolverhampton WanderersWolves166461719-222
11West Ham UnitedWest Ham166372325-221
12Watford166372023-321
13Brighton & Hove AlbionBrighton166371922-321
14Cardiff CityCardiff1642101530-1514
15Newcastle UnitedNewcastle163491322-913
16Crystal Palace1633101323-1012
17Burnley1633101532-1712
18Huddersfield TownHuddersfield1624101027-1710
19Southampton161691330-179
20Fulham1623111640-249

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