Timo Werner scored Chelsea’s fastest-ever Champions League goal and then looked to have secured top spot in Group H late on, but a 94th-minute Zenit equaliser means we will go into Monday’s last-16 draw as one of the unseeded teams.
It was a topsy-turvy evening in Saint Petersburg from start to finish. Werner needed only 82 seconds to put us in front at the Gazprom Arena, at 50 per cent capacity tonight, but our fast start gave way to a tricky period in which Zenit were able to exploit space around our midfield and behind our new-look backline.
They had already had good chances to score before they did so twice in three minutes with the interval approaching. Claudinho headed in from close range and then the tricky Sardar Azmoun confidently finished a one-on-one.
Chelsea came out fighting in the second half and Romelu Lukaku, who started, netted for the first time since the reverse fixture after good work from Werner and Ross Barkley. With Juventus leading Malmo in Italy, we went in search of a winning goal and thought it had arrived when Werner emphatically converted a half-chance with just five minutes of normal time remaining.
But there was a sting in the tail. In the fourth of six added minutes substitute Magomed Ozdoev thundered in a shot from the edge of the box, condemning us to second place in the group just as it reached its conclusion. We will play Ajax, Bayern Munich, Lille or Real Madrid in the last 16.
Tuchel made sweeping changes to his team, who were adorned in our third shirt for the first time this season.
Kepa was handed his first Champions League appearance for exactly a year, while Malang Sarr lined up in the competition for us for the very first time.
Cesar Azpilicueta joined him in the back three and there were also starts for Callum Hudson-Odoi and Saul Niguez at wing-back, and Barkley in the middle of the park alongside birthday boy Reece James. Mason Mount played just off Werner and the returning Lukaku.
It was from left wing-back that Saul embarked on a marauding run inside the opening minute, driving forward unchallenged while displaying an impressive turn of foot.
His shot on the slide was blocked behind by Mikhail Kerzhakov in the Zenit goal, but he was left helpless from the resulting corner. Barkley whipped it in to the near post at pace, Andreas Christensen got the feintest of flick-ons and there was Werner at the far post to force the ball over the line.
With Mount prominent between the lines and the Blues moving the ball at speed, we looked a constant menace in the opening 10 minutes. Lukaku’s centre narrowly failed to reach Werner and another corner caused our hosts problems before the Belgian was eventually ruled offside.
Zenit on top
The momentum soon switched, though. Zenit signalled their threat with a couple of shots from range we blocked, before prising us open midway through the first half. Azmoun released Malcom beyond our backline and with plenty of grass to run into, but Kepa was out quickly to meet him, making a fine spreadeagled save with his right leg just inside his box. Azmoun then headed wide as the Blues temporarily lost our shape.
A lightening counter-attack initiated by Barkley on the edge of his own box nearly brought our second goal on 33 minutes. Werner found Lukaku whose far-post cross was a tantalising one in the corridor of uncertainty, met by Mount at the far post on the volley. Like Kepa, Kerzhakov stayed big and saved.
Zenit continued to exploit the space between Sarr and Saul. On the next dangerous occasion, Christensen did well to force Azmoun wide and Saul recovered to clear, but there was no such reprieve seven minutes before the break when a Douglas Santos cross was headed in by his Brazilian compatriot Claudinho, who had ghosted into the box unnoticed.
Three minutes later Zenit completed the turnaround. This time it was Malcom providing the service, slipping Azmoun beyond our very high line after we had lost possession in dangerous waters. The Iranian striker rounded Kepa and rolled the ball into the unguarded net, a VAR check showing the Christensen had kept him onside.
It was very nearly 3-1 almost instantly. Again Azmoun was put through on goal with our rearguard caught upfield, and this time he opted to try and dink the ball over Kepa, who stood tall and made a super stop with his left arm.
As the teams headed into the break pondering a contest that had so dramatically shifted on its axis, we waited to see just how vital that save would prove.
Better from the Blues
Chelsea started the second half with greater authority, keeping the ball better and finding more space to operate in higher up the pitch. That didn’t translate into a meaningful opportunity until 10 minutes in when Lukaku found Saul, whose first-time shot was punched away by Kerzhakov.
Our dominance continued unabated, and we were level just after the hour. It was a slick goal, too. Barkley and Werner exchanged passes in a tight spot and the German then unselfishly squared the ball beyond Kerzhakov’s reach to Lukaku, who gleefully smashed it into the empty net.
Tuchel sent on Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech for Hudson-Odoi and Barkley as we went all out for victory, but Zenit wrestled the initiative back from us and only an extraordinary save from Kepa prevented them going 3-2 up with 20 minutes remaining. He sprung to his left to claw Azmoun’s header around the post.
Two more twists
During a break in play with a quarter-of-an-hour remaining, Kai Havertz and Marcos Alonso replaced Lukaku and Saul. With Juventus still 1-0 up in Turin, we needed a goal if we wanted to finish first.
It arrived with five minutes left. Subs Pulisic and Ziyech intricately combined in front of Zenit’s massed ranks 20 yards from goal, creating a yard of space for the former to pick out Werner. Right on the line of the last defence, he confidently cut inside before firing a low shot past Kerkhazov.
There were few scares in the closing stages until a bolt from the blue stunned Tuchel and his side, and had most of those inside the roofed stadium on their feet. The ball fell to Ozdoev 20 yards from goal and his sweet half-volley nestled in the top corner.
From eastern Europe to west London the Blues go ahead of our first home game against Leeds United in front of a full Stamford Bridge in over 17 years on Saturday afternoon. It’s Everton at home after that, with the Champions League returning in February.
Chelsea (3-4-1-2): Kepa, Azpilicueta (c), Christensen, Sarr; Hudson-Odoi (Pulisic 65), James, Barkley (Ziyech 65), Saul (Alonso 75); Mount; Lukaku (Havertz 75), WernerUnused subs Bettinelli, Mendy, Rudiger, Thiago Silva, Loftus-CheekScorers Werner 2, 85, Lukaku 62Booked Hudson-Odoi 37
Zenit (4-5-1): Kerzhakov; Barrios, Lovren (c), Rakitskiy (Krugovoi 65); Malcom (Erokhin 79), Karavaev, Kuzyaev (Ozdoev 79), Wendel (Mostovoy 51), Santos, Claudinho; Azmoun (Dzyuba 79)Unused subs: Odoevski, Byazrov, Sutormin, Kravtsov, Kuznetsov, KhotulevScorers Claudinho 38, Azmoun 42, Ozdoev 90+4Booked Lovren 60
Referee Serdar Gozubuyuk from the NetherlandsCrowd 29,349