The below were my 5 key takeaways from our 1-0 Champions League win against Zenit at Stamford Bridge on 15 September 2021.
1. Lukaku is the difference, again
Romelu Lukaku continues to show his class and value for Chelsea. Similar to the Aston Villa game, the big Belgian was not provided with much quality service from either his partnering attackers, midfielders or wing backs which made it difficult at times for him to inject himself.
More often than not he would receive the ball with his back to goal and did well to find a team mate but he found his time and space very limited due to Zenit’s committed and well-organised defence.
However, in the 69th minute Captain César Azpilicueta stepped up to swing in a delightful cross for Lukaku to rise high and steer the ball into the back of the net. Romelu did have another good chance deep in stoppage time but had his shot expertly blocked and sent out for a corner which ultimately signaled the end of the game.
Blues fans will be supremely impressed with the immediate and profound impact their prodigal son has had thus far!
2. Another clean sheet
Whether it’s in the Premier League or the Champions League, Chelsea’s defensive record continues to be very impressive. Given the narrow scoreline, the Blues were forced to ensure that their usually reliable back line remained that way.
Zenit, despite conceding the lion’s share of possession, looked quite sharp when they had the ball and created several half-chances to score an unlikely goal. The best of their chances came in the second half when Rudiger made a last-ditch block, and also when Mendy made himself big to prevent Dzyuba from poking home from close range in the final moments.
Tuchel also brought on Silva and Chilwell towards the end of the second half to give them some minutes with the latter making his first appearance since the Champions League final. Perhaps this is a signal that they might get the nod for Tottenham?
Ultimately, the Blues continue to show the broader footballing community that they are a difficult unit to break down.
3. Attack struggled to gain rhythm
While the Blues dominated their Russian opponents in terms of maintaining the ball and found themselves spending a lot of time in Zenit’s half, it must be said that Chelsea found it challenging to find many openings and generate clear-cut chances, particularly in the first half.
Part of this lack of penetration was due to the way Zenit were set up as there were multiple instances where they had their entire side in their half and set up banks of four and five to really restrict both the space and time afforded to Chelsea’s attacking-based players.
However, there were occasions where we conjured up opportunities to get in the half spaces but we either took one too many touches, made the wrong decision in terms of final ball, or lacked the right execution in the crucial moment. In the second half the Blues were more inventive and did create more opportunities which eventually paid off albeit it was via conventional means as Azpilicueta linked up for the second game in a row to find Lukaku to ensure Chelsea got their all-important goal and victory.
4. Zenit showed plenty of spirit
Credit where it’s due, Zenit put in a really spirited display from start to finish. Although their game plan was to be pragmatic and remain compact defensively, they showed on a number of occasions that they could move the ball around well and play some quality football when they show belief.
On top of their commitment off the ball for large portions of the game, Zenit showed some quality moments with their limited possession when Chelsea pressed them or when they decided to be more direct instead of playing their way out.
Unfortunately for the visitors they lacked the star quality up top and also were thwarted by some sharp defending by the Blues in the critical moments.
Overall though, Sergey Semak will take a lot of confidence from this match that his team can pick up wins against Malmo and put themselves in contention to progress out of the group, despite not being favoured to do so.
5. Winning’s winning
Like the Villa game, this was not a vintage Chelsea performance. However, in many ways it was a throwback to yesteryear when the Blues of old would grind out a win, even when they’re not playing sensationally.
There were many elements of Chelsea’s display, particularly in the first half, that caused fans frustration in terms of not being able to breakdown a well-drilled and spirited Zenit.
The notorious low-block has plagued the Blues in the past and looked to be a thorn in their side as each minute passed during this clash. However, as this Chelsea side has continued to demonstrate in recent times, despite the hurdle, they tend to overcome it.
With this, while it’s frustrating to see our star-studded side struggle against seemingly inferior opponents, it is equally pleasing that they still manage to find a way to get the job done.
While it’s easy to be critical of how Tuchel’s men lacked rhythm and penetration this game, ultimately this Chelsea side possesses a strong mentality in terms of perseverance and persistence which are key attributes for a side aspiring for the highest of honours this season.
The fact is that there is plenty to improve on in terms of being more efficient and effective with their dominance of the ball. That said, the foundation to sustainable success begins with building a solid defensive base which this Blues side continues to demonstrate each passing game.
In the end, a 1-0 win is something most Chelsea fans would have signed on the dotted line before kick-off as the result is always the most important stat to have in your favour.
On a positive note, it was great to see Chilwell get 10 or so minutes to give him a chance to be reintegrated, and with the likes of Kanté and Pulisic to return soon, and with Saúl to work his way into the team and offer us a different dynamic, the signs for Chelsea are positive.
Come on you Blues!
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