Match report: Udinese 1 Chelsea 3
A good night's working for Chelsea in Italy saw us secure a dominant win over Udinese, even if the scoreline could have been much more emphatic.
There was plenty for Thomas Tuchel to be happy about as his team came through this tie against top-flight European opposition in tiring conditions with a minimum of fuss, with our head coach's only real complaint likely to be that it took us until so late to finally put the result beyond doubt with our third goal.
In truth, we dominated play from start to finish. Even by the time N'Golo Kante fired a fine opening goal in off the base of the post from outside the box it had the feel of a game we could have been winning by more.
We briefly were when Raheem Sterling hit the back of the net for the first time since joining Chelsea, scrambling home from close range after an excellent pass from Jorginho, but the hosts pulled one back on the counter before half-time when former Watford forward Gerard Deulofeu turned in the rebound from Roberto Pereyra's shot.
The Blues continued to dominate after the break, but despite a deflected Sterling effort coming back off the post, it took until the 90th minute for us to extend our lead back to two goals, when Mason Mount tapped in substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi's low ball across goal.
It wasn't just the scoreline that will have given Tuchel reason to be cheeful, though, as Kalidou Koulibaly looked to be settling alongside his new team-mates well in defence and Sterling got off the mark for his new club, while Kante looked sharp and excelled throughout despite missing our pre-season trip to America.
Having come off the bench in the final game of our US tour against Arsenal, Kalidou Koulibaly made his first start in a Chelsea shirt since joining from Napoli, forming an experienced back three alongside Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpilicueta, who captained the side, in front of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.
Reece James and Marcos Alonso were on the wings, with Jorginho joined in midfield by N'Golo Kante, making his first appearance for Thomas Tuchel’s side during pre-season after missing the trip to America.
Summer signing Raheem Sterling was also involved from the start, operating at the centre of a fluid front three, flanked by Mason Mount and Kai Havertz.
The game began in hot and muggy conditions in north-east Italy, resulting in a fairly slow start as both teams eased into the match, with Chelsea comfortable to control possession from the back.
However, when we moved the ball into the final third the Blues were looking sharp, as good work from Kante twice threatened to open up the Udinese defence. There was a big penalty shout early on, when Havertz went down under a challenge in the box after Mount had won possession high up the pitch, but the referee waved away the German’s appeals.
Instead, it was a smart combination between Mount and Sterling which provided the first chance of the game, just shy of 10 minutes in. A clever pass inside by Mount was perfectly timed into Sterling’s path, allowing him to hurdle a challenge without breaking stride and get free in the area, but goalkeeper Marco Silvestri was quick off his line to block Sterling’s shot from close range.
By the time the clock showed 15 minutes played, Chelsea were well in control, but Thiago Silva had to show all his experience to prevent Isaac Success getting free on the end of a quick counter, expertly positioning himself between the striker and the ball to shepherd it back to Mendy. Our goalkeeper was called into his first real involvement shortly afterwards, although it was comfortable for him to gather Roberto Pereyra’s shot from range.
Despite how dangerous our front three had looked in the early stages, when we found the opening goal our start deserved it was from a less obvious source. Kante, showing no signs of rust in his first appearance in pre-season, scored a fine effort all of his own making. The Frenchman drove out of midfield in the left channel, evading the Udinese players, and continued all the way to the edge of the box before striking a left-footed shot low beyond the goalkeeper and in off the foot of the far post.
The Chelsea players were starting to enjoy themselves now and Silvestri needed to make two saves in quick succession to keep our lead at one, first denying Mount after a clever turn and run by Sterling, then beating away a Havertz effort at his near post.
The encouraging interplay between our front three of Mount, Sterling and Havertz, with Sterling staying central but dropping deep while the other two stayed high on the Udinese defensive line, was causing the home team all kinds of problems, as was our high press when they attempted to play out from the back. Mount in particular was winning possession in dangerous positions frequently, and was unlucky not to see a blue shirt on the end of a low drive across goal on one such occasion.
The pace dropped slightly after the water break midway through the first half, but we were no less dominant for it and our superiority was underlined by Sterling’s first goal in a Chelsea shirt. Much of the credit must go to Jorginho, who found his team-mate in the box with a lovely pass. Sterling waited for the goalkeeper to blink first, although Silverstri managed to block the initial effort, but our forward has a second chance at the rebound. It briefly looked like the defender would get back to clear, but the ball bounced just beyond his reach and over the line.
However, before the break, Udinese pulled a goal back on the counter, as two members of their former Watford legion combined. Pereyra broke free down the right but Mendy got down to palm away his low shot. It seemed he might claw out Deulofeu’s follow up on the rebound too, but the keeper’s momentum was taking him the wrong way and despite getting a touch to the ball he couldn’t prevent it going in.
The first half then stuttered to a close as play was twice interrupted when Sterling needed treatment after being bundled over by Udinese players, with the forward looking less than impressed as he left the pitch at the break rubbing his back.
Somewhat surprisingly for a pre-season friendly in such humid conditions, there were no half-time changes from either side and the pace briefly stepped up another level at the start of the second half, as both teams pushed forward at speed looking for the next goal.
It didn’t produce much in the way of chances, though, apart from a driven Mount cross which was theatrically beaten away by Silvestri. The game soon settled back into a familiar pattern of Chelsea dominance and we twice went close to extending our lead. First it was another piece of solo brilliance from Kante, firing wide from outside the box, before a move involving all our front three ended with Sterling attempting a back-heel towards goal, but the defenders had recovered in time to block.
Havertz will be wondering how he didn’t find the back of the net when Alonso’s volley towards goal found the German four yards out but he couldn’t adjust his body and sent the ball straight to the keeper, although the linesman’s flag was raised for offside anyway.
There was still the occasional threat from Udinese, as shown when Success dragged a shot wide from a promising position on the left, but Mendy was largely untested. We were still having things mostly our own way, even if another goal continued to evade us when Sterling’s deflected strike from the edge of the box hit the post and bounced out.
If anything the Blues were guilty of being a little too unselfish, with Mount twice opting to pass when he might have shot himself, so as it was a Sterling header over the bar was the closest we came to adding to our lead before the second-half drink break.
When play resumed, Tuchel opted to bring on a trio of substitutes, with Koulibaly, James and Havertz making way. That saw Emerson Palmieri operating on the left of our back three, Callum Hudson-Odoi at wing-back and Harvey Vale coming into the front three.
It nearly paid off instantly as Hudson-Odoi met a fizzed ball to the back post by Sterling, but the substitute’s first-time shot was narrowly wide and he was flagged offside afterwards.
There was little more in the way of action at either end as both sides looked relatively content with their evening's efforts, right up until the last minute when Mount finally extended our lead to a 3-1 scoreline which more accurately reflected the game. It was substitute Hudson-Odoi who twisted free on the right and drilled low across goal, leaving Mount a simple finish from point-blank range.
That left no doubt that it was the Blues who left the pitch the happiest after securing a comfortable win in Italy, even if we would have liked to have turned our dominance into a more emphatic scoreline.
We stay in Italy one more day for a second friendly against Udinese behind closed doors tomorrow, with kick-off at 10am UK time. That game will also be shown live on the official Chelsea website and The 5th Stand app.
Then it is time for the competitive action to get under way back in England, when we travel to Everton for our opening Premier League fixture of the 2022/23 season at 5.30pm next Saturday.