Chelsea’s place in the Champions League last-16 was secured with two games to spare as goals from Callum Hudson-Odoi and Olivier Giroud in France proved the difference between the Blues and Rennes, extending our winning run to six matches.
There was late drama on the other side of the Channel but first it was a goal crafted on the junior pitches at Cobham that opened the scoring. In the week in which a Mason Mount mural was unveiled off the Fulham Road outside Stamford Bridge, the young midfielder produced some artistry of his own to tee up Hudson-Odoi with a glorious pass from inside his own half and the forward did the rest, slotting in the only goal of the first half.
This was not an evening where Chelsea had things all their own way though and Edouard Mendy was the busier of the two goalkeepers as he worked hard to preserve our advantage for the majority of the game, producing some impressive stops and interventions.
As Rennes remained in the game right until the death, the pressure grew and Sehrou Guirassy headed in an equaliser with just four minutes remaining. Yet there is a new resilience to Frank Lampard’s men this season and they found the spirit to win the game all over again when Giroud powered in a header in stoppage time.
Sevilla’s win in Krasnodar means both us and the Spaniards are guaranteed a place in the last-16, with top spot still up for grabs.
Lampard made changes in defence, midfield and attack for the visit to Brittany, with four alterations in total from our weekend win in Newcastle.
Thiago Silva and Cesar Azpilicueta returned to the back four, while Jorginho replaced N’Golo Kante in midfield and Hudson-Odoi was preferred to Hakim Ziyech on the right side of attack.
For Rennes, defender Dalbert was suspended following his sending-off at Stamford Bridge three weeks previously, while highly-rated 18-year-old Eduardo Camavinga started in midfield. Last season's top scorer M'Baye Niang returned from injury in the Friday night defeat against Bordeaux and started on the bench once again for the hosts.
Strong start without reward
Timo Werner had contributed to seven goals in his past seven Champions League games prior to this match-up across the Channel and the German should have extended that record inside five minutes to capitalise on a bright Chelsea opening.
Enjoying the lion’s share of possession on a dry, sticky pitch, the visitors progressed the ball down the right through Azpilicueta and Hudson-Odoi, with the latter fashioning enough space to deliver a teasing low cross into the box.
Space was also a luxury afforded to Werner at the back post but our number 11 got underneath his close-range effort and blazed it agonisingly over the bar. It was a big let-off for the hosts and they took advantage by soon settling down.
Chances were at a premium thereafter in the opening 20 minutes of the contest; Rennes aggressive and organised in the face of probing without precision or penetration from Lampard’s men.
The Blues were well aware of the Group E permutations heading into this matchday four encounter, with qualification to the last-16 up for grabs with two matches to spare. In this most convoluted and congested of campaigns, that cushion could provide crucial.
In order to secure it in France, Chelsea had to win and hope for anything other than a Krasnodar victory against Sevilla in the other group game. The stars were aligned midway through the first half as, following Ivan Rakitic’s early goal for the Spaniards in Russia, Chelsea also established a 1-0 lead.
Following a period of quiet at Roazhon Park came the quality, provided by the young England duo of Mount and Hudson-Odoi. The midfielder demonstrated the grit and guile that has elevated him to such an integral part of this team, battling to take control of the ball well inside his own half. After initially looking left for Werner, he then spotted the more dangerous run of Hudson-Odoi down the channel on the opposite flank.
Mount’s raking pass was measured to perfection and his fellow Academy graduate’s first touch wasn’t bad either, cushioning the ball into his path before slotting it past the onrushing Rennes goalkeeper for 1-0. It was the 20-year-old’s third goal of the season, his second in the Champions League, and handed Chelsea a useful lead.
On a chilly night in northern France, the opener provided the spark to raise the temperature. While a top-two finish in the group was looking beyond Rennes, a place in the Europa League was very much up for grabs and their threat increased as the half wore on.
However, that was not before a stretching Mount was denied by Alfred Gomis between the posts on the half-hour mark, an opportunity that owed much to Ben Chilwell’s endeavours and persistence down the left.
On his return to Rennes, Mendy’s evening got increasingly busier as he looked to add to his seven Chelsea clean sheets to date. The 28-year-old’s handling was tested both high and low, while he had to produce smart stops to thwart Guirassy and Damien Da Silva before the break.
There was also a Kurt Zouma block and a great opening spurned by Guirassy following a loose Chilwell pass as the hosts ended the half in the ascendancy. For Lampard, the interval came at an ideal time.
Improved defensive resilience has played a big part in our upturn in form over recent months – this was a 13th game unbeaten since mid-September – and that was no more in evidence than during a 10-minute spell at the start of the second half.
As deliveries were peppered into the 18-yard box, the rearguard stood firm; Thiago Silva always in the right place at the right time, Zouma putting his body on the line, Chilwell and Tammy Abraham offering aerial solidity at set-pieces.
Rennes had arguably posed the greater threat since our opener but Lampard’s Chelsea this season feel more resolute, more mature and more capable of protecting a slender advantage.
Unlike the Premier League, UEFA rules in European football allow for a maximum of five substitutions to be made and Lampard shuffled his pack for the final quarter of the contest, replacing Mount and Abraham with domestic duo Kante and Giroud.
The pair are revered in their homeland following France’s World Cup triumph in 2018 and there is a similar affection from the Rennes faithful for Mendy following his year at the club prior to a summer switch to London.
However, the keeper was proving a frustrating figure for the hosts and had to be at his very best to deny Guirassy and then Gerzino Nyamsi in quick succession, although he was helpless to prevent them snatching a late equaliser with four minutes remaining.
Having led for so long, it was a deflating blow to concede so late as a corner from the right found its way through to striker Guirassy and he headed unopposed past Mendy to draw the scores level at one each, leaving little time for a Chelsea revival.
Oli to the rescue
Substitute Hakim Ziyech found Chilwell at the back post with a floated delivery but Gomis was equal to the left-back’s header and that appeared to be it. However, although the Blues could not find the resilience to hold on for 1-0, they did show their strengths to fight back and win the game all over again with a stoppage-time strike.
Sloppiness at the back saw Ziyech released running at the back four and the Moroccan’s pass for Werner was typically crisp. Gomis was out quick and denied the striker but Giroud was alert and on hand to direct a powerful header beyond the despairing last-ditch jump of a defender. It was a finish few strikers in world football could perfect, packing punch and precision.
So often the hero on French soil, the striker had done it again, this time for Les Bleus from London, to send us through to the knockout round.
A big London derby against Tottenham this weekend, kicking off at 4.30pm at the Bridge on Sunday. After that, it’s back to Europe with a trip to Sevilla for Champions League matchday five.
Chelsea (4-3-3) Mendy; Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva, Zouma, Chilwell; Jorginho, Kovacic (Havertz 75), Mount (Kante 68); Hudson-Odoi (Ziyech 75), Abraham (Giroud 68), Werner (James 90+1)
Unused subs Kepa, Caballero, Tomori, Rudiger, Christensen, Emerson, Alonso
Scorers Hudson-Odoi 22; Giroud 90
Rennes (4-3-3) Gomis; Traore, Da Silva, Nyamsi, Truffert (Maouassa 86); Nzonzi, Bourigeaud, Camavinga (Grenier 78); Doku (Gboho 86), Guirassy (Niang 86), Lea Siliki (Del Castillo 63)
Unused subs Salin, Tait, Hunou, Assignon, Soppy, Rutter, Omari
Scorer Guirassy 85
Booked Grenier 87
Referee Bjorn Kuipers from Netherlands