Marcos Alonso‘s 86th-minute header gave Chelsea the edge over hard-working Slavia Prague with a 1-0 win in the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal in the Czech capital on Thursday.
The Spanish left-back capitalised on a fine cross by Brazilian winger Willian, the tireless mastermind of Chelsea’s attack on a chilly night.
Willian himself came close to scoring on 25 minutes but slammed his right-footed effort onto the crossbar.
Maurizio Sarri made seven changes from Monday’s 2-0 Premier League win over West Ham, and Chelsea took some time to warm up.
Those left on the bench included Eden Hazard, who is being touted as a possible £100 million (116 million euros, $131 million) summer transfer target for Real Madrid.
Slavia had the first scoring chance but captain Simon Deli narrowly missed with a diving header from Miroslav Stoch‘s free-kick two minutes into the game.
The Czech top-flight leaders had a rare shot on goal in the first half as Petr Sevcik saw his long-range strike stopped by away goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.
An under-strength Chelsea struggled to find any rhythm for large spells, but grew into the game after Hazard was introduced off the bench just before the hour mark.
Chelsea centre-back Antonio Rudiger saw his shot saved by Slavia keeper Ondrej Kolar and then headed wide, while Willian missed with a low shot.
Then four minutes from time Alonso timed his run perfectly to meet Willian’s right-wing cross with a firm header at the Eden Arena.
The second leg at Stamford Bridge takes place on 18 April.