By 90Min
September 20, 2018

The Europa League has long been considered the clawing, clingy but irrelevant runt-of-the-litter younger brother of the Champions League - and for good reason. It possesses the anti-holy trinity of worse teams, more air miles and less prestige. 

But one thing that despairing fans, especially in England, have been able to cling onto on those somber Thursday night trips to (insert rogue eastern European city), is the opportunity to examine their fringe and youth players.

For Chelsea fans in 2018, this seems particularly pertinent. While the Blues' 100% start to the Premier League season has helped to chisel out and cement a now predictable starting XI, there still remains more options and unanswered questions than in recent years. 

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The trials and tribulations of the Pensioners' (out of touch?) efforts to properly promote their youth starlets has been well documented, yet there still seems a sliver of genuine optimism around the homegrown talents of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi.

Of course, the hope that was inspired by their respective World Cup and pre-season exploits has been remorselessly ground out of most Chelsea fans with the near total exclusion of both so far. But participation in the Europa League group stages for the first time since 2002 has helped to waylay these fears. 

It has also made the competition's usually turgid fixtures must-watch tv for any fan intrigued by Maurizio Sarri's development of these peripheral talents - which should be all true fans. Up to this point, the Italian has been coy on the future of the 22-year-old England star in particular, inexplicably choosing Ross Barkley (?!?!?!?) over him in the club's first few games before Mateo Kovacic usurped him. 

But a string of strong showings in hostile and remote grounds could propel him back into the fold.

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It's not just the exciting English duo that could profit from our Europa League adventures - indeed, it's uncertain whether Loftus-Cheek will even be involved against PAOK - there's a plethora of other youth/veteran stars fighting for a place in the Saturday lineup.

The seen-it-all-done-it-all pair of Cesc Fabregas and Gary Cahill will be unusually hyped for a midweek trip to Thessaloniki, desperate to regain their dwindling foothold in the team. Elsewhere, big things will be expected of the fire breathing hype machine that is Ethan Ampadu, after the 18-year-old was thrust into the limelight for being...too classy on the ball for England?

Though the Welshman has operated largely at centre back in his short career in west London so far, there seems to be a general consensus that the central defensive midfield role is the one he will emigrate into. If we're lucky, we may even get a glimpse of this in Greece, if the rumours are to be believed.

However, with Chelsea's current midfield three of Kovacic, Jorginho and N'Golo Kante functioning at an inimitable level and the central defence juxtaposing them horrifically, Ampadu may not be feeling so lucky. One man who has been down on his luck of late, especially taking into account the aforementioned defensive troubles, is Andreas Christensen.

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The Dane, at his best, is Chelsea's most naturally gifted and authentic 'defender'. But as of yet Sarri has ignored this fact, presumably (and if so, unjustly) focussing on the nature of his mistake that so cost the club in their Champions League tie with Barcelona last season.

If the 22-year-old can recapture the form he showed at the start of last term - that provoked Pep Guardiola to tap him up - then there's surely a place for him in the big time. To be honest, I'm not sure what the established pair of Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz have to do to be dropped, at this point. It's almost reaching Trump impeachment levels of ridiculousness.

...Too far?

Anyway, someone who has felt the pain of slipping from the feted XI in recent times is Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard has (once again) showed tantalising glimpses of the player he could be for Chelsea, think about the - dare I say it - Diego Costa-esque goal against Arsenal, but for the rest of the time has been his sulky, misfiring self. 

No bother. The drastically insulting rumblings of a loan move to West Ham in January should snap him right out of his slump - and if it doesn't, then nothing will. Either way, fans should be feeling anything but sullen about our ensuing Thursday night tour of the obscurities of European football. 

With all the possibilities and undeniable talent on show, how could you not be looking forward to it? I mean, full disclosure, I'll be at the cinema during the PAOK game - an unavoidable schedule clash, I'm afraid - but I'll definitely be glued to the screen for (checks notes)...Videoton(?) at home on the 4th of October. Definitely.

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