Pre-Match Briefing: Zenit St Petersburg vs Chelsea

From our weekend game in east London to a Champions League excursion in eastern Europe. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton preview the Blues on the Baltic…

This evening London’s most glamorous club pays a first-ever visit to the city dipped in gold (though currently a winter wonderland), St Petersburg, for the wrap of the Champions League group stage.

Chelsea’s early kick-off against hosts Zenit will take place in the all-weather Gazprom Arena, at the tip of an island buffeted by Baltic winds, and the outcome could propel the Blues to seeded status in Monday’s Round of 16 draw.

Matching or bettering Juventus’s result at home to Malmo will seal top spot in Group H as the Blues have superiority over the Bianconero in head-to-head matches. Like the group leaders, the Old Lady has injury problems and may face the Swedes stripped of Chiesa, Danilo, De Sciglio, Kulusevski, McKennie and Ramsey.

Zenit are the Londoners’ 195th different opponent in all competitions, and the fifth from their country. No English team has won in St Petersburg but the Blues have bagged all the points on three previous visits to Russia in this competition, most recently a 4-0 win at Krasnodar in October 2020.

FK Krasnodar 0-4 Chelsea | Champions League Highlights

Highlights from our 2020 Champions League match away at FK Krasnodar in Russia.

The ‘Venice of the north’ is also set to stage the final so if all goes well, tonight could be a dry run for a successful defence of the crown by the champions of Europe on 28 May. Chelsea have progressed from 18 of the past 19 group stages in this competition, and in each of the last seven attempts.

Chelsea are on a run of three Champions League wins without conceding and could record a fourth in a row for the first time in the competition.


Chelsea team news

Thomas Tuchel acknowledged in the wake of the West Ham defeat that Chelsea ‘are not good enough in the details at the moment, but there’s no need to start doubting the big picture’. The devilry is in those details as the season enters its most attritional period and problems stack up. Creative thinking may be on the cards tonight as the Londoners look to secure top billing in Group H, but not at any cost.

In recent weeks there has been a lack of certainty in the Blues’ chance-creation, but a sudden tendency to make individual errors of judgment has undermined the team’s greatest strength: defending.

The two goals from Thiago Silva and Mason Mount would have been enough to win every other match played by the Blues so far this season. Now would be a good time to restart the run of clean sheets that made the deposed Premier League leaders so formidable.

That said, with European knockout football in February confirmed, recovery times and the imminence of three domestic league games over nine days will dominate thinking as much as injuries. Tuchel has confirmed he will include players who need minutes to acquire matchday rhythm and to share the workload.

'Kovacic has tested positive for COVID. We know what it takes to win games.' | Thomas Tuchel & Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Thomas Tuchel and Ruben Loftus-Cheek face the press ahead of their UEFA Champions League Group H match against Zenit.

Midfield has been a troublesome area recently and opponents have scored after possession was surrendered in our half. N’Golo Kante remains sidelined, Mateo Kovacic is now isolating with Covid, and UEFA Men's Player of the Year Jorginho has been playing with pain and has not travelled.

Figuring centrally could be Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mason Mount, Ross Barkley or Saul, though Reece James, who occasionally finishes games anchoring midfield, and Andreas Christensen would offer a protective approach.

Should Marcos Alonso be rested, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic, as well as Saul, are left wing-back options. Hudson-Odoi has been Chelsea’s creator-in-chief in the Champions League, too. Only four players have taken on opponents to set up more goals.

In this competition the Blues still have the tightest defence, conceding the fewest goals (one), shots on target (five), expected goals against (2.85), and racking up the most clean sheets (four, and in six of the past seven).

Thiago Silva has been outstanding, making vital goal-line clearances and winning 90 per cent of aerial duels in this competition. His coach may want to rest the heavily used Brazilian and/or Toni Rudiger if possible, though, with Malang Sarr among the limited options available. At some stage soon Kepa Arrizabalaga will need a sharpener ahead of Edouard Mendy’s January departure to the Africa Cup of Nations.

Thiago Silva's brilliant clearance against Juventus

The Blues’ best moments against the Russians in September came from periods of high tempo passing and movement, and the 1-0 victory came despite only two shots on target. Winning goalscorer Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner could start tonight, though Kai Havertz has trained since the knock that took him off at West Ham.

Champions League 2021/2022
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Brazilian threat in Zenit ranks

Zenit boss Sergey Semak switched mid-season from 4-4-2 to 3-4-3 but lined up more like a 5-4-1 for the meeting at Stamford Bridge on matchday one, a narrow win for the Blues. The Londoners dominated possession but found the visitors’ traps tough to spring and the shots on target tally ended two apiece.

Zenit lost their most recent home match in this competition by the same 1-0 scoreline, to Juventus back in October, with stand-out player Claudinho responsible for half their 12 attempts. Against Rostov on Friday evening the Russian league leaders came from behind to draw 2-2 thanks to a brace from the attacking midfielder.

Thomas Tuchel will also aim to limit the effectiveness of fellow Brazilians Malcom, their number 10 and fulcrum, and wing-back Douglas Santos. Last time out Malmo restricted the Russians to one shot on target, a last-minute penalty equaliser from their rock at the back, Yaroslav Rakits’kyy.

Zenit's goal in Sweden

Semek has hinted at changes ahead of the weekend league clash with second-placed Dynamo Moscow. Centre-back Dmitri Chistyakov is suspended tonight, sent off for two bookable offences at Malmo when his side were already a goal down. Defensive midfielder Wilmar Barrios might be drafted into the usual back-three unless they revert to a four.

First-choice goalkeeper Stanislas Kritsyuk is also sidelined for several months after knee surgery. Veteran Mikhail Kerzhakov was between the sticks in Sweden and conceded from Malmo’s only accurate shot, their first goal in the competition for six years.

Zenit were criticised by former players for playing very conservatively against the Swedes. We should expect a freer, more aggressive approach this evening now Europa League football has been secured. In a domestic setting almost a fifth of their goals derive from set-plays and one in 10 from rapid counter-attacks. When opposition defenders have the ball, Semek’s men usually press concertedly to gain possession.

Striker Artem Dzyuba (on nine goals) has been looking to match Hulk (10) as his club’s all-time marksman in Europe’s elite competition, but has fired blanks since November 2020.

What to look out for

After last night’s games, 12 clubs have qualified for the knockout stages (including Chelsea and Juventus) and six are confirmed as group winners who will play the first leg away from home. Among the winners who will be drawn against a runner-up on Monday are Ajax, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

This evening Barcelona or Benfica (Group E), Villarreal or Atalanta (Group F), and RB Salzburg, Lille, Wolfsburg, or Sevilla (Group G) will complete the last 16 line-up.

Ice station Zenit

On Monday night the temperature in St Petersburg was measured as -20.9°c, beating a 128-year-old record of -20.5°c set in 1893. It has since warmed up slightly locally but forecasts still suggest double figures below zero in the northern city at kick-off.

That is much colder than the -2.3ºc recorded during our infamous Cup Winners’ Cup game at Tromso. Happily, unlike the blizzard-stricken Alfheim Stadion in October 1997, the hi-tech Gazprom Arena has a retractable roof and interior heating system.

The roof visible on Zenit's stadium

So it is unlikely we will see Thomas Tuchel and his players in gloves, let alone emulating Keith Weller who wore white tights in the FA Cup for Leicester, the club he joined from Chelsea. The Blues’ 1990s goalkeeper Dmitri Kharine always wore leggings as protection, a habit picked up through diving on the uncovered playing fields of Moscow.

City guide from Baltic Blues

Chelsea’s official supporters’ club in St Petersburg has produced a helpful thread of travel advice for Blues fans visiting their beautiful city. Their account is on Twitter @chelseafc_spb, Facebook, and Instagram @chelseafc.spb, and their pre-match get-together is at Street Food bar, University Embankment, 25.

Champions League Matchday 6 fixtures

Group E
Bayern Munich v Barcelona 8pm
Benfica v Dynamo Kiev 8pm

Group F
Atalanta v Villarreal 8pm
Man Utd v Young Boys 8pm

Group G
RB Salzburg v Sevilla 8pm
Wolfsburg v Lille 8pm

Group H
Juventus v Malmo 5.45pm
Zenit v Chelsea 5.45pm

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