Thomas Tuchel’s 100th game in charge was one to forget for the Chelsea boss as the Blues started their Champions League campaign with a defeat in Croatia.
A frustrating evening in Zagreb saw the visitors lack the poise or punch to break down a stubborn home defence, drawing a second blank of the season and falling to a third loss.
Mislav Orsic’s early goal on the break set the tone for Dinamo, providing the platform and encouragement for them to protect and work tirelessly. They almost had a second but for Kepa Arrizabalaga’s fingertip save onto the frame of the goal after half-time.
Reece James came closest for the Blues with a shot against the post late on but for all our possession and territory, a total of three shots on target was not enough to break down dogged Dinamo, who celebrated after the final whistle to mark a special result.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Chelsea debut and a return in goal for Kepa were the standout headlines from Thomas Tuchel’s team selection in Croatia as the boss made six changes from our weekend win over West Ham.
Mason Mount, Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell and captain Cesar Azpilicueta were the other returnees, while Wesley Fofana was retained to make his Champions League debut.
Handling the heat
In the stifling heat of the Croatian capital, where temperatures had peaked at 30C earlier in the day, Chelsea’s Champions League campaign began in earnest against the local national champions, who had advanced through six qualifying fixtures to reach this season’s group stage.
The early pattern of the game was little surprise to any onlooker in the half-empty Stadion Maksimir, where the capacity had been restricted by a stand closure for safety reasons, but which did not limit the relentless noise of the home faithful.
The hosts lined up in a deep 5-4-1 shape with counter-attacking their primary source of adventure, while Tuchel’s side dominated the ball and started on the front foot. Sterling was denied a certain opening goal after six minutes following neat combination play between Havertz and Aubameyang, the England international thwarted by an excellent block from Stefan Ristovski.
Our Gabon goal-seeker then had a rare opportunity to utilise his pace in behind, running away from the Dinamo defenders down the inside-right channel before his delivery was snaffled behind for a corner. Mount’s low set-play was flicked on by Havertz but comfortably gathered by Dominik Livakovic, the home goalkeeper.
Breakthrough on the break
There was soon something for the Dinamo supporters behind Kepa’s goal to really shout about when Orsic latched onto a nod forward from Bruno Petkovic and accelerated away from Fofana into the Chelsea half.
Our new centre-back hardly lacks pace but the man who scored a hat-trick against Tottenham in last season’s Europa League stayed in control and finished confidently with a flick past Kepa for a precious opener.
The high pressing that had been so suffocating for the hosts early on had proved our undoing but the contest was only likely to carry on in the same fashion as we pushed for an equaliser. Dinamo had not registered a clean sheet in their previous 10 outings but our attacking play was too ponderous and passive to cause any real issues.
In fact, it was Ante Cacic’s side who fashioned the better chances in the remainder of the first half. The lively Orsic fired narrowly over after producing some neat footwork to escape a couple of challenges in the box before Kepa palmed away a fierce 20-yard strike from skipper Arijan Ademi.
The Blues, quarter-finalists in last term’s competition, did apply some pressure in the closing exchanges before the break, though neither Sterling nor Aubameyang could get a shot away quickly enough in a crowded 18-yard box.
Changed but no change
Bolstered by the attacking introduction of Hakim Ziyech at the interval, the visitors doubled their shots on target count within minutes of the restart as the new arrival fired low but tamely straight into Livakovic’s gloves.
Aubameyang then had the ball in the back of the Dinamo net having converted Chilwell’s lay-off but the defender was offside in the build-up and the celebrations were swiftly cut short.
Our change in system to a back four was allowing James and Chilwell the opportunity to overlap but also presented Dinamo with hope of finding space again in the final third and Ristovski almpost capitalised on that before the hour mark when he struck ambitiously from distance, forcing Kepa into a fingertip save that pushed the ball onto the crossbar and away.
Building the pressure
Further Chelsea reinforcements soon arrived as Jorginho and Armando Broja entered the fray, with the latter quickly causing problems from the left but again not unduly troubling Livakovic with the final effort.
Our alterations in shape and personnel were piling attacking options onto the pitch but Dinamo’s resistance continued to stand firm. Ziyech and Broja were close to finding the right combination to unlock the deadlock but the Moroccan’s inswinging cross was just too heavy for the striker to connect with.
Ziyech then volleyed into the ground and over from the edge of the box before Havertz was denied by a great intervention from Robert Ljubicic, who got himself in the way of our number 29’s header following an inviting back-post delivery from Mount.
Surviving late scares
Frustrations grew as Dinamo ran the clock down in the latter stages, trying everything possible to hold on for a famous win, and they also had to rely on a bit of luck as James fired a left-footed shot against the foot of the post in the dying stages.
Livakovic also saved instinctively from Mount as the hosts saw out eight minutes of added time to claim the early ground in Group E, condemning the Blues to only the third Champions League defeat on the road in our past 16 matches.
With the margin for error in this competition relatively small, two big games at Stamford Bridge against RB Salzburg and AC Milan come next.
It’s back to the Premier League and a more routine away trip across south-west London to take on Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday lunchtime. After that we have two more matches before the first international pause of the season, at home to RB Salzburg and Liverpool.
Chelsea (3-4-3) Kepa; Azpilicueta (c) (Ziyech h/t), Fofana, Koulibaly; James, Kovacic (Jorginho 59), Mount, Chilwell (Cucurella 71); Havertz, Aubameyang (Broja 59), Sterling (Pulisic 75)
Unused subs Bettinelli, Mendy, Chalobah, Chukwuemeka, Gallagher, Loftus-Cheek, Zakaria, Pulisic
Booked Mount 58; Koulibaly 67; Tuchel (not on pitch) 76;
Dinamo Zagreb (5-4-1) Livakovic; S.Ristovski, Moharrami (Lauritsen 76), Sutalo, Peric, Ljubicic; Ademi (c) (Baturina 89), J.Misic, Ivanusec, Orsic (Spikic 77); Petkovic(Drmic 90+7)
Unused subs Zagorac, Nevistic, Stefulj, Emreli, Bockaj, Marin, Theophile-Catherine, Bulat
Scorer Orsic 13
Referee Istvan Kovacs from Romania