Romelu Lukaku’s first Champions League goal for Chelsea got our defence of our European crown off to a winning start as his solitary strike made the difference in a tight encounter with Zenit St Petersburg.
It was our first-ever meeting with the Russian side as we opened the 2021/22 group stage at Stamford Bridge, but they arrived determined to make life difficult for the Blues.
Despite looking the better side throughout, chances were almost impossible to come by as the Russians’ back five strangled our attacking players of space in the box.
There was little in the way of goal-mouth action during a frustrating first half, but we lifted our tempo after the break and started to look increasingly dangerous.
It took another game-deciding intervention from Lukaku to secure victory, though, as he showed his strength to leap above two defenders at the back post and head Cesar Azpilicueta’s deep cross down into the bottom-left corner, scoring the only goal of the game from the only real chance he had all night.
Following the 3-0 win over Aston Villa at the weekend, Thomas Tuchel made five changes to his team, including two in defence, with Cesar Azpilicueta coming back in as captain and Andreas Christensen also returning to the side. Antonio Rudiger continued as our third centre-back in front of Edouard Mendy.
After being introduced from the bench at half-time on Saturday, Jorginho was back in the starting line-up to partner Mateo Kovacic in midfield, flanked by Marcos Alonso and Reece James, who was suspended for our Premier League fixture following his red card against Liverpool.
Zenit made three changes from the side that beat Akhmat Grozny 3-1 in their last game to go top of the table in Russia, as South American trio Wilmar Barrios, Claudinho and Malcom all returned after being rested at the weekend.
Before kick-off Tuchel, Jorginho, Mendy and N'Golo Kante were all presented with awards by UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, having been unable to receive them in Istanbul during the Champions League draw due to international travel restrictions.
They and the rest of Chelsea’s European champions were given a massive welcome on to the pitch for our first Champions League game at Stamford Bridge since lifting the trophy, and that was soon followed by a great atmosphere for the start of the game as the supporters enjoyed the return of European nights to west London.
Zenit tried to come out fighting in attempt to quieten the home fans, and Malcom briefly looked like he might get free in space in the box inside the first couple of minutes, but Rudiger was on hand to snuff out the danger and then launch a searching ball forward into the channel for Mount.
While that attack came to nothing, it did allow us to break upfield and establish control over the opening exchanges from then on. However, the Russians were still carrying a threat and James had to be alert to head away a flicked-on cross with Claudinho poised to pounce at the back post.
For our part, we were doing well in possession until we reached the penalty area, but finding it hard to progress beyond that. Alonso failed to find Mount on the edge of the area, Lukaku couldn’t jump high enough to meet James’ cross and then Ziyech had a shot charged down from 20 yards.
Apart from that Ziyech effort, the only other shot from either side in a cagey first 20 minutes came from Zenit defender Yaroslav Rakitskyy, but he fired well over the bar from long range with Mendy never worried.
Chances few and far between
We started to probe with a little more purpose as the game entered the second half of the first period, though, with Lukaku in particular causing problems for the Zenit defenders and Russian goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk at full stretch to tip a James corner off of Rudiger’s head on the penalty spot.
Having increased the tempo of our play, it wasn’t long before we had the visitors pegged well back into their own half, Mount becoming increasingly influential with his strong running into the final third, but we still couldn’t find the final pass to create a clear sight of goal.
Rakitskyy got the game’s first shot on target with a little over five minutes to go until half-time, as he tried to curl in from outside the box, but it lacked power and was fairly central, allowing Mendy to comfortably hold the ball.
It was from corners that we tested Zenit’s resolve the most in the final minutes before the break, as Rudiger, Lukaku and Azpilicueta all came close to getting on the end of dangerous deliveries from James and Ziyech, but on the one occasion the Belgian striker did manage to get his head on a cross he couldn’t get over the ball and it looped over the bar and into the Shed End crowd.
Turning up the heat
It didn’t take us long in the second half to test the goalkeeper, though. After good link-up between Lukaku and Mount, the ball broke loose for Ziyech just outside the box, but he couldn’t get enough on his shot to make things difficult for Kritsyuk.
In a sign that we would be showing more urgency after the break, all 10 outfield players were soon positioned within 40 yards of Zenit’s goal as we maintained a spell of possession, and then Rudiger carried the ball under pressure all the way from the edge of our box to inside the opposition’s with a brilliant run before cutting on to his right foot for a shot, but it fizzed wide of the far post after briefly looking like the Bridge crowd would be witness to an incredible goal.
That combination between Mount and Lukaku was starting to cause Zenit real problems and looking like our most promising route to breaking the deadlock, as evidenced when they released James in the box, but he couldn’t settle himself and the wing-back’s left-footed effort could only find the side netting at the near post.
However, with Zenit still stubbornly refusing to allow us the room to create chances with just under half-an-hour remaining, Tuchel decided to make his first change of the night, with Kai Havertz coming on to replace Ziyech.
We weren’t quite having things all our own way, despite increasingly long spells of possession, as shown when Rudiger made a perfectly-timed challenge in the box to nip the ball off Sardar Azmoun’s foot as the striker was set to shoot.
Before the clock could tick over into the last 20 minutes, though, we had finally taken the lead we had firmly deserved on the balance of play, and who else could it have been to find the breakthrough but Lukaku? From the moment Azpilicueta clipped one of his trademark diagonal balls towards the back post, the end result never seemed in doubt, as Lukaku’s powerful leap took him above two defenders to head an effort down beyond Kritsyuk and into the bottom corner.
Alonso then tried his luck with a fantastic turn on the edge of the box to make room for a shot, but he dragged his effort wide of the right-hand post. Zenit were trying to fight back, bringing on the imposing figure of Russian international centre-forward Artem Dzyuba and opting for a direct route upfield, but the striker was guilty of a glaring miss as we entered the final 10 minutes when he slid to meet a good ball across the face of goal, but guided his shot wide from close range.
That prompted Tuchel to introduce Thiago Silva and Ben Chilwell from the bench, the latter making his first competitive appearance since last season’s Champions League final, to help us keep things tight at the back and ward off any late counter-attacks for the visitors to snatch a point. They completed that task in expert style, as we barely allowed Zenit a touch of the ball for the final few minutes of the game, playing safe in possession to see out a winning start to our defence of the Champions League trophy.
We are back in Premier League action on Sunday for a big London derby, as we travel to Tottenham Hotspur for a 4.30pm kick-off, before we come back to the Bridge next Wednesday evening to host Aston Villa again, this time in the Carabao Cup.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Mendy; Azpilicueta (c) (Thiago Silva 82), Christensen, Rudiger; James, Kovacic, Jorginho, Alonso (Chilwell 82); Ziyech (Havertz 63), Lukaku, Mount (Loftus-Cheek 90+2)
Unused subs: Bergstrom, Kepa, Chalobah, Sarr, Barkley, Saul, Hudson-Odoi, Werner
Scorer: Lukaku 69
Booked: Azpilicueta 45
Zenit (5-4-1): Kritsyuk; Sutormin, Barrios, Chistiakov, Rakitskyy (Krugovoi 88), Douglas Santos (c); Malcom (Dzyuba 76), Kuzyaev (Kravtsov 82), Wendel (Erokhin 76), Claudinho (Mostovoy 88); Azmoun
Unused subs: Kerzhakov, Odoevski, Khotulev
Booked: Rakitskyy 62
Referee: Bartosz Frankowski