Prague, Czech Republic – Chelsea kicked off its Europa League campaign in positive fashion, stealing a vital 1-0 win over Sparta Prague at the Generali Arena on Thursday.
The Blues, who won the Champions League last season, were relegated to the Europa League by finishing third in Group E of this season's competition, slipping behind Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk.
They made sure to get off on the right foot in the two-legged affair as Oscar's 82nd-minute strike put Chelsea in pole position heading into the return match.
Sparta Prague made the brighter start of the two sides by getting into great scoring positions throughout the opening period, but the home side failed to find a goal for its efforts.
The Czech Republic club was left to rue those misses as Chelsea took control of the match with just eight minutes to go.
Oscar entered the match in the 81st minute and made an immediate impact, working a nice one-two with Eden Hazard before skipping past a defender and sliding a near-post shot past Tomas Vaclik in the Sparta Prague net.
It proved to be all Rafa Benitez's men would need as they take their one-goal lead back to Stamford Bridge for the second leg on February 21.
Fellow English club Liverpool was not quite as fortunate in its first match of the Europa League knockout round.
The Reds held their ground until the second half when Zenit St. Petersburg bagged two goals in the span of three minutes en route to a 2-0 victory at the Petrovsky Stadium on Thursday. Hulk opened the scoring in the 69th minute with a rocket from distance that made its way into the upper corner, and Sergey Semak made it two for the Russian club when he fired home a missed clearance from Martin Skrtel.
Europa League action at White Hart Lane saw three wonder-strikes as Tottenham claimed a 2-1 win over Lyon.
Gareth Bale opened the scoring with a fantastic free kick just before halftime but was canceled out by Samuel Umtiti's sensational first-time volley placed perfectly in the upper corner in the 55th minute. It remained even until the third minute of stoppage time when Bale rocketed another free kick into the back of the net to continue his sublime run of form.
Napoli came into the round as one of the favorites to claim the Europa League crown, but its chances of advancing took a major hit on Thursday as the Italian side was left stunned in a 3-0 loss to Viktoria Plzen at the Stadio San Paolo. Vladimir Darida, Frantisek Rajtoral and Stanislav Tecl scored for the Czech club, sending them home to the Struncovy Sady for the second leg with three away goals that will make it tough for Walter Mazzarri's men to get through.
Atletico Madrid also endured a tough first leg as it fell at the Vicente Calderon in a 2-0 loss to Rubin Kazan. The Europa League holders dug themselves a major hole for the return match as Rubin Kazan gained a massive advantage behind goals from Gokdeniz Karadeniz and Pablo Orbaiz.
Also on Thursday, Anzhi claimed a 3-1 home win over Hannover, Ajax topped Steaua Bucurest 2-0 at the Amsterdam Arena, Benfica stole a 1-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen at the BayArena, Levante cruised to a 3-0 defeat of Greek side Olympiakos, Bordeaux managed a 1-1 draw at Dynamo Kyiv, Fenerbahce was held to a 0-0 draw by BATE Borisov, Borussia Monchengladbach and Lazio finished level in a 3-3 thriller at Borussia Park, Basel claimed a 2-0 win over Dnipro, Rodrigo Palacio bagged a brace in Inter Milan's 2-0 defeat of CFR Cluj, Glynor Plet grabbed a late equalizer in Genk's 1-1 draw at Stuttgart, and Newcastle was held to a 0-0 home draw by Metalist Kharkiv.