Our 2021/22 campaign introduces a second competition to the fixture schedule tonight, and it is one dear to our hearts. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton mull over matchday one…
For only the second time in our history, Chelsea begin a Champions League campaign as defenders of Europe’s crown with Zenit, plucked from Pot 3, the visitors.
Thomas Tuchel has stressed the importance of opening the group stage with a bang and could make it to a third Champions League final in a row as a coach – a third UEFA showpiece in four seasons for the Londoners. This will be the Bavarian’s first experience of a full Stamford Bridge atmosphere at a night match.
No reigning champions have ever kicked off the following season’s campaign with a home loss and the Blues’ recent track record of 11 group stage games unbeaten breeds confidence, even against unfamiliar opponents.
Chelsea have never met Zenit before, not even in a friendly. They are the 195th different side we have faced in all competitions and the fifth from their nation. The Blues’ only ever defeat by Russian opponents in European competition was 2-3 against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League quarter-finals in April 2013.
This is the Londoners’ 30th foray into Europe and 18th in the Champions League. We have successfully navigated the group stage of this competition in 16 of our 17 campaigns, winning the Europa League on the only other occasion.
Chelsea have won 10 of our past 17 Champions League group games at Stamford Bridge, losing only once.
— KEY STAT
Chelsea team news
Champions Chelsea won nine of our 13 matches throughout the 2020/21 Champions League campaign, losing once and keeping nine clean sheets – both highs in the competition. Tonight, Thomas Tuchel takes charge from the outset for the first time.
He made six changes to his line-up on Saturday and is likely to act similarly this evening. A few regulars were uninvolved 72 hours previously, including Andreas Christensen, Mason Mount, the suspended Reece James, and N’Golo Kante, who the Bavarian hopes to have back for Tottenham. UEFA Player of the Year Jorginho, Timo Werner and Cesar Azpilicueta also sat out part of the hard-won victory against Aston Villa.
Werner contributed towards six goals in this competition last season – four goals, two assists – and three of his strikes came with him leading the line at Stamford Bridge. Now, of course, Romelu Lukaku is a likely starter. His Champions League scoring record so far is 13 goals from 27 appearances.
Lukaku’s first ever Chelsea goals on home soil against Villa not only showcased his remarkable movement and resourcefulness, but validated the tactic to play the ball quickly forward when gaining possession in midfield. Already, after one match, no Chelsea player has scored more goals at the Bridge under Tuchel than the Belgian.
Post-international outings can be tricky – our previous one was the shock 2-5 home loss to West Brom. Villa’s clever approach produced more chances for the visitors than our Bavarian coach would have liked but with Edou Mendy’s agile goalkeeping and Lukaku’s clinical finishing, it was like having cheat codes at either end of the pitch. Mateo Kovacic’s astute finish was his first ever goal at the Bridge.
Although subbed early, Saul will have learnt from his 45-minute baptism of fire. Some of our greatest players, not least Marcel Desailly up against Dion Dublin or Thiago Silva at West Brom, endured far more costly debuts but soon adapted to the Premier League’s unique intensity.
One other point worth watching: the Blues scored eight of our 23 goals (35 per cent) in last season’s Champions League campaign from the 75th minute on; Zenit conceded five of their 13 (38 per cent) in the same time period.
|08-Dec-20||Krasnodar Champions League group stage||D 1-1|
|04-Apr-13||Rubin Kazan Europa League quarter finals||W 3-1|
|03-Nov-10||Spartak Moscow Champions League group stage||W 4-1|
|20-Oct-04||CSKA Moscow Champions League group stage||W 2-0|
Reaching the Zenit
Zenit hail from St Petersburg, an ancient port city dipped in gold, but they have found success hard to earn among Europe’s elite, losing five and drawing the sixth of their group stage games last season.
They have tasted defeat in seven of their past eight away trips in this competition and have returned pointless from their three most recent UEFA visits to England, most recently in 2013.
Bridge favourite Branislav Ivanovic, who made the group stage draw with Michael Essien, was their captain until 2020. Coached by Sergei Semak and these days skippered by former Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren, injured for today's game, they registered the fifth win of an unbeaten start on Saturday at home to Akhtam.
It was a typical performance from Zenit, who aim to get behind opponents. Each of their goals involved a lay-back from the by-line for an arriving team-mate. The string of defensive jitters that gave the visitors a glimmer help explain their one clean sheet to date and why four rival clubs have conceded fewer goals.
Semak, the longest-serving Russian to occupy the hot seat since Gazprom bought the club in 2005, succeeded Roberto Mancini in 2018 having been caretaker for nine days at the club where was a playing legend four years earlier.
With Ivanovic and another former Blue, Yuri Zhirkov, part of his regular back four, he brought the title back to St Petersburg for the first time since the days of Andre Villas-Boas. Since then, though, few have survived a switch towards South American flair.
Semak’s team are attack-minded, with the midfield comprising two deep-lying centrists (including the Colombian Wilmar Barrios) and two inverted wingers (likely to be Brazilians Malcom and Wendel) supported by adventurous full-backs in Vyacheslav Karavayev and Douglas Santos.
At the Bridge they may set up with one striker, such as Iran’s prolific poacher Sardar Azmoun, plus support, likely to be the recently signed Portuguese, Claudinho. Deadline day signing Stanislav Kritsyuk made his debut in goal at the weekend.
Two regulars in the back four, Lovren and Karavayev, have not travelled, but Wilmar may arrive later than the rest but in time due to Covid regulations.
The bear in winter
Defending champions Zenit, unbeaten after seven games, lead the way in the 30th edition of the 16-team Russian Premier League. Like the bear that is its symbol, Russia’s top-flight hibernates over winter before resuming in February. The average temperature for December, when we visit St Petersburg, is -3.8 degrees Celsius, nine lower than is usual for London that month.
Champions League regulations for 2021/22
Relevant only in the knockout stages is the scrapping of the away goals rule the season. Ties level after a second leg will go to extra time and, if required, a penalty shoot-out, regardless of the number of goals a team has scored on the road.
UEFA will still allow five substitutions to be made (plus a sixth in extra time of knockout ties) from a bench of 12. This system is in place in the domestic leagues of each of our Group H rivals, and Thomas Tuchel believes it is disadvantageous not to have it in the Premier League.
‘I was also a coach for a long time of a little team,’ he noted, ‘and I would have loved it.’
An additional benefit of re-signing Romelu Lukaku is that the Belgian is considered a homegrown player in the Premier League and an ‘association-trained’ one by UEFA. He joins a healthy contingent of 10 homegrown players in Thomas Tuchel’s 25-strong Champions League squad, even before our talented List B (under-21) players are factored in.
In any UEFA squad, only 17 players over the age of 21 can be included who are not club- or association-trained. In the past, with fewer homegrown players available, this has meant the Blues’ main squad has sometimes been capped at 21, augmented by under-21s from List B.
Final stadiums previewed
Group H brings together Chelsea, winners of last year’s final, and Zenit, the hosts of the next one. With luck history will repeat itself.
Last season the Blues saw off Porto in the quarter-finals of this competition before a glorious return to the Stadio do Dragao for the final against Manchester City.
Our first visit to Zenit’s 70,000-capacity Gazprom Arena, which will stage the Champions League final in May 2022, is in the final group game.
Elsewhere in Group H
Malmo’s indifferent league form continued with a last-minute equaliser for visitors Norrkoping on Saturday, making it just one win in five for the Swedish champions.
Without a victory after three matches, Juventus slipped to 17th in Serie A after hosts Napoli capitalised on mishandling by Wojciech Szczesny to win 2-1. Former Blue Alvaro Morata had opened the scoring for the Old Lady.
Champions League fixtures
Barcelona v Bayern Munich 8pm
Dynamo Kiev v Benfica 8pm
Villarreal v Atalanta 8pm
Young Boys v Man Utd 5.45pm
Lille v Wolfsburg 8pm
Sevilla v RB Salzburg 5.45pm
Malmo v Juventus 8pm
Chelsea v Zenit St Petersburg 8pm
Club Brugge v Paris Saint Germain 8pm
Man City v RB Leipzig 8pm
Atletico v Porto 8pm
Liverpool v AC Milan 8pm
Besiktas v Dortmund 5.45pm
Sporting Lisbon v Ajax 8pm
Inter v Real Madrid 8pm
Sheriff v Shakhtar Donetsk 5.45pm