Chelsea warmed up for the EFL Cup final with a comfortable 3-0 home victory over Malmo to secure a place in the Europa League’s last 16, winning 5-1 on aggregate.
Olivier Giroud and Ross Barkley, who were both on target in establishing a a 2-1 first-leg advantage in Sweden seven days ago, grabbed second-half goals before Callum Hudson-Odoi marked his recall with the third.
Maurizio Sarri will still head into this weekend’s daunting match against Manchester City with doubts hanging over his long-term future, a situation that was helped little by a sluggish first half.
But a sharper showing after the restart – and Rasmus Bengtsson’s sending off for two yellow cards – led to three goals in 29 minutes and averted further pressure from building on the under-fire Italian.
Sarri’s seven changes failed to stave off the early sloppiness, with Markus Rosenberg scuffing a left-footed effort past the right-hand post in the 13th minute.
Cesar Azpilicueta turned a low cross from Willian into goalkeeper Johan Dahlin at close range but an otherwise subdued first half invited a smattering of boos at the break.
The home side clicked into gear 10 minutes after the interval. N’Golo Kante led a counter-attack and slipped a pass to Willian, who squared for Giroud to tap home.
Giroud turns in Willian’s cross for SIX goals in SEVEN Europa League games!
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) February 21, 2019
Any hope Malmo had of mounting an unlikely comeback quickly disappeared when the dismissal of Bengtsson was followed 60 seconds later by Barkley’s brilliant free-kick, the midfielder classily bending the ball up and over the wall.
That paved the way for teenager Hudson-Odoi – a Bayern Munich transfer target throughout January – to further enhance his claims for a regular starting spot with an unerring low finish into the bottom-left corner in the 84th minute that wrapped up the serene 5-1 aggregate success.
What does it mean? Confidence boost ahead of big test
Chelsea hardly broke a sweat at Stamford Bridge and, while they cannot afford such a timid start against Pep Guardiola’s men, Thursday’s untroubled victory at least injected some winning momentum.
Whether they can pick up where they left off from a smoother second 45 minutes remains to be seen, particularly with several regulars likely to be restored to the starting XI.
Kante imbues Blues with forward thrust
Sarri has stood firm in defiance to the critics calling for France midfielder Kante to return to the base of midfield and the Blues boss received some vindication on this occasion.
The World Cup winner, who has often looked out of place in a box-to-box role, took the plaudits for engineering Giroud’s goal with his positive burst from inside his own half.
Bengtsson dismissal adds to disappointment
He passed up an opportunity to head Malmo into the lead in just the third minute and defender Bengtsson’s contribution only worsened from there.
The centre-back picked up two yellow cards in just over 20 second-half minutes to scupper Malmo’s comeback before it began.
Chelsea must improve if they are to overcome City in the EFL Cup final at Wembley on Sunday and will be tested again at home to Tottenham three days later.
Malmo, meanwhile, switch their attention to a cup encounter away to second-tier Osters on Monday.
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