Football Features

Lukaku saves Chelsea from deja vu as Blues start Champions League defence with victory

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:31, 14 September 2021

Chelsea got their Champions League defence off to a winning start with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Zenit St Petersburg on Tuesday night.

The Blues were made to work for their victory but Romelu Lukaku’s second-half goal was enough to secure the win and stick Chelsea second, with Juventus beating Malmo 3-0 in Group H’s other game.

But what did we learn from Stamford Bridge?

1. Champions League Lukaku

Chelsea weren’t great at Stamford Bridge and were made to work extremely hard for their result but the most important thing is that it did come.

Over the years Chelsea fans will have grown accustomed to failure in games like this Zenit one, when they were almost perfectly dealt with by their opponents and offered very little hope of breaking through. Despite starting the game well, Chelsea did not make the most of their control and allowed their Russian visitors to get comfortable with their back five preventing a shot on target in the first half.

Even when Chelsea did finally hit the target in the 48th minute, it was a tame one, as Hakim Ziyech scuffed his effort straight into the hands of the goalkeeper. The lack of threat in front of goal came as Zenit starved Lukaku of the service he thrives on, targeting Ziyech and Mason Mount who had an uncharacteristically poor game.

In the past, this would have ended goalless. But Chelsea spent £97.5m in the summer to ensure they put their past behind them and, in the 69th minute, it paid off. Growing in confidence, Chelsea started to test the Zenit defence once again and Cesar Azpilicueta put an excellent cross into the box which Lukaku had no real right to get onto the end of. But he did, connecting with a beautiful header and giving Chelsea the lead.

It was his seventh goal in six games for club and country this season and already his fourth for Chelsea alone. Just four more and Lukaku will have beaten Chelsea’s scoring record for last season (Jorginho’s seven). He won’t take long to do it, and Chelsea will be feasting.

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2. If we can all be more like little Rudiger…

Even with Lukaku’s goal, there wasn’t too much for Chelsea fans to get excited about as they were made to suffer on their return to Stamford Bridge for Champions League football. There were only a couple of Chelsea stars who could honestly say they had a good game, one being Mateo Kovacic and another Antonio Rudiger.

Just one year ago Rudiger looked as though he might never play for Chelsea again having fallen out with Frank Lampard and reportedly looking for a move away. He was eventually given a second chance and, especially under Thomas Tuchel, has turned into one of the best centre-backs in world football right now.

The German is a giant in Chelsea’s back three both physically and mentally, never shying away from a challenge and always looking to boost those around him. He was almost faultless in keeping Malcom quiet during the Brazilian’s time on the pitch and helped protect the clean sheet with an excellent goal-saving tackle on Sardar Azmoun. The Blues have now kept 23 clean sheets in 36 games since Tuchel took charge at the end of January.

But perhaps his most memorable moment came with a driving 50-yard run from his own half, drawing comparisons to Kurt Zouma against Ajax in 2019 (sans stepovers), before just missing the target with his shot. Although he did not score, it provided Chelsea and the fans with a shot in the arm, showing that Zenit could be broken through.

3. Claudinho shines for Zenit

As mentioned, Chelsea didn’t have it all their way and although they lost, Zenit will be proud of how they frustrated the European champions and asked questions of the Blues defence on occasion. Claudinho, in particular, was fantastic.

The 24-year-old joined Zenit from Brazilian side Red Bull Bragantino in the summer having been directly involved in 10 goals in 25 games across all competitions over the 2021 campaign. Before he arrived in Russia, Claudinho was part of the Brazil squad that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics, playing every game en route to the 2-1 win over Spain in the final, recording one assist.

Against Chelsea, Claudinho was Zenit’s killer outlet, allowing them to move the ball away from their own area and take a breather while also giving themselves a chance of causing what would have been dubbed an upset. The Brazilian completed three take-ons in his 88 minutes at Stamford Bridge, level with the rest of his team-mates combined, and also had more touches (77) than any other Zenit player.

He may not have pierced the Chelsea armour, but he certainly dented it and will cause teams problems in the Champions League this season.

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4. Chelsea avoid deja vu

There were some signs of deja vu when the Champions League group stage draw was completed last month as defending European champions Chelsea were placed in the same foursome as Juventus. And for Chelsea fans, the memories aren’t good ones.

Having won the Champions League for the first time in the club’s history in 2012, Chelsea were riding on high and despite being placed in a group alongside Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and Nordsjaelland, were backed to at least make it to the knockout stages.

However, under Roberto Di Matteo (and one game in Rafael Benitez’ tutelage) Chelsea made history in becoming the first ever defending European champions to go out at the group stages. Then, they started with a 2-2 home draw with Juventus in which they lost a two-goal lead handed to them by summer arrival Oscar.

But this time around they have made a winning start to avoid the ignominy, becoming the 13th reigning champion to opening the following campaign with a home win.

5. Azpilicueta has his new Morata

In 2017 Lukaku was linked with a return to Chelsea from Everton but instead signed for Manchester United, with Alvaro Morata joining the Blues instead. Although the Spaniard underperformed at Stamford Bridge he did build a good understanding with compatriot Cesar Azpilicueta who set up a number of goals.

And it’s an understanding he appears to have replicated with Lukaku already. In Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Aston Villa at the weekend, the pair combined for Chelsea’s third and final goal with Azpilicueta playing the ball to Lukaku on the edge of the are for the Belgian to score his second and on Tuesday night they made it two in two.

Azpilicueta to Lukaku is the first assister-scorer combination to reach more than one goal for Chelsea this season and it’s fitting that the second came in an Azpilicueta-Morata-esque move, with an excellent cross met by a header.

The question is, how many more times will we see that combination for Chelsea this season?