LONDON (AP) — Who needs Diego Costa when you have Davide Zappacosta?
On his full Chelsea debut, the wing back announced himself to Stamford Bridge in spectacular fashion with an audacious solo goal eclipsing anything the exiled striker Costa has produced in west London.
It was some way, too, for 2012 champion Chelsea to announce its return to the Champions League after failing to qualify last season. Zappacosta’s 30th-minute goal was only the second in a 6-0 rout of Azerbaijani tournament newcomer Qarabag in their opening game in Group C.
The deadline-day signing from Torino started the run outside his own penalty area and surged down the field past two defenders before reaching the edge of the Qarabag penalty area where he caught goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic off-guard with his strike.
Asked later if Chelsea had a new hero called Costa, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte replied in a flash: “Zappacosta.”
Conte has been trying to avoid questions for months about Diego Costa, who is out of London as he agitates for a move to Atletico Madrid. No wonder Conte was relieved to be talking about Zappacosta, one of five changes from the side that beat Leicester in the Premier League at the weekend.
“He played a really good game but now he has to continue to work to improve,” Conte said. “It was his first appearance at Stamford Bridge. It’s not easy to totally change your sporting life in one week, but the answer was very good. He has said he wanted to cross, but he scored and it’s important for us.”
For Conte, this was the first chance to see how he can rotate the squad to cope with the demands of domestic and European football. Chelsea was only occupied by domestic duties last season, and it cruised to the Premier League title by seven points.
“To play in the Champions League means the coach trusts you,” Conte said. “My message tonight was this. I trust all my players, not only with words but with facts. For the first game in the Champions League I decided to start with rotation.
“Also because we have to start the process to improve our players. If we think we can play with 13 players like last season, we are crazy. Instead, we have to improve our players and try to create a good competition between them. A positive competition is very important.”
The goals were spread through the team, although the strength of the performance has to be countered with the defensive ineffectiveness of a Qarabag side showing its inexperience.
The feeble Azerbaijan champions first conceded after five minutes when Pedro Rodriguez bent the ball past Sehic.
Cesar Azpilicueta, playing in a back three, demonstrated his attacking threat when he headed in the third 10 minutes into the second half after being left unmarked to meet Cesc Fabregas’ cross. Just like Zappacosta, Tiemoue Bakayoko marked his Champions League debut for Chelsea with a goal in the 71st minute after coming off the bench.
“Baka is improving his physical condition a lot,” Conte said of off-season midfield recruit from Monaco. “He is a strong player, a physical player, and he has to continue to improve and go better in our idea of football. He needs more time than Zappacosta.”
Bakayoko turned provider for back-up striker Michy Batshuayi to score his first goal of the season, and the rout was completed when Zappacosta set up Batshuayi for an effort that went in off Maksim Medvedev for an own-goal.
“We made a lot of errors,” Qarabag coach Gurban Gurbanov said.
Still, Gurbanov was proud to have led an Azerbaijani team into the group stage of European soccer’s elite competition for the first time.
Qarabag is a political symbol that goes far beyond football in the country. The club originated in the city of Agdam, a city which has been abandoned since the Nagorno-Karabakh War of the early 1990s. Many locals fled east to the Azerbaijani capital Baku, where Qarabag plays.
The largely ruined city is under the control of forces that claim to be local ethnic Armenian separatists but that Azerbaijan alleges include regular troops from the neighboring country of Armenia.
“Unfortunately our land is occupied by armed forces,” Gurbanov said through a translator at Stamford Bridge as a post-match news conference took an unexpected diversion into geopolitics. “This makes us stronger.”
The game at Stamford Bridge provided all the goals in Group C as Roma and Atletico Madrid drew 0-0 in the Italian capital.
The UEFA Champions League came back with a bang on Tuesday, with the opening matches of the new campaign providing action and goals aplenty.
Big names and big scorelines on the first night gave fans much to ponder.
… but it does buy you a darn good soccer team. The lavishly assembled Paris St. Germain attacking line flexed its muscles, routing Celtic 5-0 on the road to make a swashbuckling start. Neymar, newly installed as the world’s most expensive player, looked close to unstoppable, as did Kylian Mbappe, the French teenager priced more than $200 million.
Celtic might be one of the weaker teams in the competition, but they are no pushovers at home, having beaten Barcelona and tied Manchester City in recent teams. This was a signal of intent from PSG — and a loud one.
Chelsea scored six goals in an unimpeded rout of Azerbaijan’s Qarabag, but there was one that got everyone talking. Davide Zappacosta either scored one of the most spectacular goals in Champions League history or — he got lucky.
Zappacosta burst down the right flank, beat two players, then scorched the ball past the goalkeeper’s despairing dive from close to the sideline. It looked like an intended cross and it probably was, but either way Chelsea is flying and Zappacosta has one for the highlight reel.
There’s not much Lionel Messi has failed to do on a soccer field but until Tuesday night he had never scored in three attempts against Juventus’ legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. That barren streak ended at the Camp Nou, as the little maestro struck on half-time, then added another in the second half as Barca cruised to a 3-0 win over the team that dumped it out of last season’s quarterfinals. What motivates Messi these days? Revenge did here.
Bayern, Barca, Chelsea and Manchester United have all won the Champions League within the past decade and while their performances on Tuesday were all impressive, those favoring a bit more suspense would have enjoyed a pair of games off the radar.
CSKA Moscow came from behind to win at Benfica in a tough and intense struggle, while Sporting Lisbon looked sensational in bursting into a 3-0 lead at Olympiakos, before narrowly surviving a frenetic finish to win 3-2. Food for thought when planning your future viewing schedules.
Step up Real Madrid, the challenge has been laid down. With all the big hitters in rousing form on Tuesday, two-time defending champion Real Madrid will be keen to offer a strong response.
Real begins its campaign on Wednesday at home to Cyprus’ APOEL Nicosia, and if it gets off the mark early, don’t be surprised to see Los Galacticos try to run up the score to prove a point to its tournament rivals.
WORLD SCORES: COURTESY OF LIVESCORE.COM