Olivier Giroud scored his first Chelsea goal in 794 minutes as the Blues progressed to the Europa League knockout stages with a 1-0 win at BATE Borisov.
Chelsea’s fourth win from as many Group L games – three of them now 1-0 – was played out in freezing fog and memorable only for France World Cup winner Giroud’s first Blues goal since May’s win over Liverpool.
BATE, comfortably beaten last month in London, struck the woodwork three times and Eden Hazard’s services were required for longer than anticipated in Belarus.
Seven changes were made to the side which last Sunday beat Crystal Palace 3-1, with Hazard starting for the first time since the draw with Manchester United on October 20.
Blues head coach Maurizio Sarri left David Luiz, Antonio Rudiger, Marcos Alonso and in-form striker Alvaro Morata at home, with one eye on Everton this Sunday, saying Hazard would feature for 45 or 50 minutes.
Chelsea were 2-0 up after eight minutes two weeks ago, but BATE were a different proposition here, just a few days after wrapping up a 13th successive Belarusian league title.
The hosts came close to taking a 12th-minute lead. Dmitri Baga beat Kepa Arrizabalaga with a fine drive from 30 yards, which shook the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
A corner soon afterwards was headed on by Stanislav Dragun, with Kepa scrambling clear.
Hazard, unsurprisingly, was involved in Chelsea’s best moves early on, but there were few chances of note.
Giroud had an effort deflected wide after a neat turn from Ross Barkley’s pass and the France striker later headed wide with a difficult chance from a Hazard cross.
Chelsea had plenty of possession, but too often poor crosses from Davide Zappacosta or one touch too many from Ruben Loftus-Cheek saw attacks end.
As the game clicked into the 51st minute, Hazard was fouled and sent the resulting free-kick soaring out of play beyond the far post.
It was indicative of a frustrating night for Chelsea; their playmaker had been due to be off by then, the result decided.
Sarri was gesticulating wildly in his technical area, his sense of urgency building, and within moments Chelsea were in front.
Jorginho fed left-back Emerson Palmieri who, unlike Zappacosta, found his man with the cross.
Giroud’s downward header at the near post had enough power to beat Denis Scherbitski, but the goalkeeper should have done better.
If Chelsea thought their night would become more straightforward from that moment, it did not.
A hefty touchline challenge by Maksim Skavysh sent Hazard into his own dugout, the Belgian rising gingerly.
And then BATE struck the woodwork for a second time when Dragun’s shot was diverted on to the crossbar by Nikolai Signevich.
Aleksei Rios blasted over soon afterwards, when more composure would have led to an equaliser.
Hazard shot straight at Scherbitski, who next saved a Giroud header.
Hazard had been withdrawn by then, seven minutes later than promised by Sarri.
Barkley shot over and Jorginho off target and Evgeni Berezkin fired wide for the hosts, who strove for an equaliser until the end.
Even Scherbitski came up for a stoppage time corner and in the ensuing scramble Baga hit the post.
Chelsea were relieved to see the ball rebound clear as they held on to qualify with two matches to spare and extend their unbeaten run to 17 games, since August’s Community Shield loss to Manchester City.
Mateo Kovacic warned against complacency as Chelsea look to confirm their place in the Europa League knockout stages in Belarus.
Chelsea will be confirmed in first place with two rounds of matches to go if they win at BATE Borisov on Thursday and the other Group L game, between Vidi and PAOK in Budapest, is drawn.
Maurizio Sarri has left Alvaro Morata, David Luiz, Antonio Rudiger and Marcos Alonso at home, but Eden Hazard has travelled despite only just recovering from a back problem.
N’Golo Kante was a late call-up, after Cesc Fabregas was left at home after reporting a fever on Wednesday morning.
Sarri defended rotating his options, insisting rest was necessary for those left at home, while Kovacic acknowledged Liverpool’s plight at Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday provided a cautionary tale. Liverpool won 4-0 at Anfield, but lost 2-0 in Serbia.
“I watched the game, Liverpool struggled a lot,” the on-loan Real Madrid midfielder said.
“In Belgrade the atmosphere is tough. It’s difficult to play there, like here. These are games where you need to concentrate a lot or you will lose the game.
“The most important thing is we need to be prepared so that what happened to Liverpool doesn’t happen to us.”
Chelsea have won all three Europa League games so far, including 3-1 in London two weeks ago, when Ruben Loftus-Cheek scored a hat-trick.
The Blues are unbeaten in competitive games this season, with the only defeat of Sarri’s reign coming in the Community Shield loss to Manchester City.
Kovacic reckons Chelsea will continue to improve after an impressive start under former Napoli boss Sarri.
“City with Guardiola struggled in the first season. It’s normal,” the Croatia midfielder added.
“We are still unbeaten and we don’t play at our highest level, because we’re still with the coach only two or three months.
“We’re doing very well because the team has great talent and we can already have a great season this year.
“We need to improve a lot. It needs time to understand completely and work on his football, but we’re doing a great job.”
Morata has five goals in his past six games, but was described as “fragile” by Sarri after his double against Crystal Palace on Sunday.
The striker spurned a late hat-trick opportunity and later admitted to enduring a difficult 2018.
Sarri says Morata was left at home precisely because he is in good form. The Italian reverted to his native tongue in an animated explanation, apparently riled by his decision being questioned.
“He played three matches in a row, so I thought it was better for him to stay in Cobham to rest and to have two good training sessions,” Sarri said.
“It’s normal for a player to play three or four matches and then rest. Otherwise, we can have a squad with 13 or 14 players.”
Sarri said Morata needed to work on specifics, citing his physical game, but insisted none of his players do weight training.
“I’ve never seen a player with a weight on the pitch,” the 59-year-old added.
Hazard missed three matches with his back problem, but Sarri insisted there was “not any risk” with the journey.
“We thought for him it’s better to play, not for 90 minutes, but to play after two weeks without training,” Sarri added.
“In the last match he played only for 30 minutes. Tomorrow the best for him is he will play 45, 50 minutes.”
Eden Hazard has travelled for Chelsea’s Europa League clash with BATE Borisov in Belarus, but Marcos Alonso, David Luiz, Antonio Rudiger and Alvaro Morata have been left at home.
Hazard missed three matches with a back problem before returning as a substitute in Sunday’s Premier League win over Crystal Palace, but has made the journey to Belarus for the Group L fixture at Borisov Arena.
Morata scored twice against Palace, but Blues head coach Maurizio Sarri has opted to rest his in-form striker.
“He played for three matches in a row. I thought it was better for him to stay at Cobham and rest and have only training,” said Sarri, speaking in Minsk.
Cesc Fabregas was a late withdrawal through illness, resulting in N’Golo Kante travelling.