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Zenit sit deep throughout, limiting Chelsea's chances
Moment of quality from Romelu Lukaku the difference between the sides
His name roared loudest as it was read out before kick-off and the appreciation for Romelu Lukaku never let up. Chelsea have the goal-scoring hero, the true No 9, they craved and, on his Champions League return, he did not let them down.
It is four games and four goals for Lukaku since his return from Inter Milan for a club-record £97.5 million and the striker is doing exactly what he was bought for: turning tight games that would end in draws into wins and taking the chances that Chelsea were spurning last season.
When his appearances for Belgium are factored in, it is seven goals in six games for Lukaku in this campaign. The 28-year-old has only failed to score against Liverpool, when Chelsea were forced into a rearguard action with 10 men.
For so long it appeared this opening tie in Group H, as Chelsea began their campaign to retain the Champions League, would also end in a draw. It could even have been worse than that. Zenit St Petersburg were organised, resolute, posed a threat – missing two clear opportunities –and appeared to have contained Lukaku. But when he finally got a chance, he took it. That is the difference he makes.
Lukaku’s last appearance for Chelsea in European competition had been an unhappy involvement in a Super Cup penalty shoot-out, back in 2013, and he looked like a man on a mission as he took to the pitch. He is stamping his authority on the European champions and they are all the better for it.
The goal summed it up. A celebratory atmosphere was turning into one of frustration. Fireworks had been set off before the game unfolded, but there were few on the pitch. Chelsea’s Champions League triumph in May was still being savoured with a slew of individual awards from Uefa, whose president Aleksander Ceferin, was bizarrely booed (had the fans forgotten his role in ending the European Super League?) followed by a chorus of “Champions of Europe”.
Seconds before Lukaku scored, though, and there was a different chorus. “Come on Chelsea!” implored the supporters as they sensed time was running out and still the breakthrough had not come. Chelsea stepped up the pace in the second half, but Zenit would not fold and were a growing danger.
Finally Lukaku escaped. Jorginho collected possession and ferried it wide to Cesar Azpilicueta, who had time to weigh up a precise cross from the right that was met by Lukaku, slipping between his markers Dmitri Chistyakov and Yaroslav Rakitskiy, to rise high and guide his header low into the net. He made it look easy, but it was not. The relief was palpable and the celebrations prolonged. It was the first chance for Lukaku and he took it. The only other would come deep into injury-time when he had a shot blocked and he kicked the hoardings.
Make no mistake – Lukaku is driven. Winning the Serie A title has made him hungry for more and the European Cup is in his sights. He was a Chelsea player when they first won it in 2012, but he did not accept a winners’ medal believing he did not deserve it after being left out of the 25-man European squad.
And so Lukaku conducts himself like the true heir to Didier Drogba that, it feels, was always his destiny but one which might not have ever been fulfilled at Chelsea. Now there is already a gathering momentum behind that happening.
Collectively, though, Chelsea will have to play better than this on a night when their main group rivals, Juventus, cruised to an easy victory away to Malmo. Thomas Tuchel’s side moved the ball slowly, tried to press – but Zenit had some fine ball players of their own and especially through their four-strong Brazilian contingent they also posed a threat. Claudinho was prominent.
Before Lukaku’s goal, Chelsea’s most memorable moment came when Antonio Rudiger charged forward from his own half, holding off challenges, before firing wide from the edge of the penalty area. It fired up the crowd. And it also fired up Zenit, who broke with Wendel picking out Sardar Azmoun who suddenly was through on goal, only for Rudiger to step in as he drew his foot back to shoot. It was a let-off and seconds later Chelsea scored.That huge transfer fee already looks great value and Lukaku’s name rang out again at the end as he strode off. He already is the main man.
Chelsea 1 Zenit St Petersburg 0: As it happened...
That's all from me...
But read Jason Burt's match report for a full recap of this evening's events.
Chelsea deserved to win
But Zenit played well too. They limited Chelsea's chances but the quality of Lukaku was the difference between the sides.
FULL-TIME: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Dyzuba is caught by James - just a free kick. Zenit launch the ball towards the Chelsea box. It is well defended and Chelsea break. Lukaku carries it into the box but his shot is deflected out for a corner.
That is that.
90+2 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
James finds some room to work in down the right but opts to hold it up with possession king at this stage.
Loftus-Cheek is on for Mount.
90 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
There will be four minutes of added time.
89 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Chelsea are now just content to keep the ball with the lead in the bag.
86 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Chilwell fires a low cross into the Zenit box but it is scrambled clear.
84 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Chilwell is coming on! His first action since the Champions League final after riding the pine during the Euros and this season for Chelsea so far. Thiago Silva is also on. Alonso and Azpilicueta off.
81 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Alonso breaks into the Zenit box with some silky footwork. He turns onto his left but just drags his effort wide of the post.
Zenit should equalise! They break down the right win and the ball is played across goal. Dyzuba wins the race to the ball and just pokes it wide from a couple of yards out! He was stretching for it. Let off for Chelsea.
Mendy is down after the Russian striker collided with him.
78 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
The match has become far more open since the goal. Chelsea look likely to add another.
75 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Havertz gets to the byline but his cross is snuffed out.
Zenit have sent on Dzyuba up front, the physical Russian striker who is always a handful.
72 min: Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Chelsea, probably, deserve to be in front. Will Zenit come out all guns blazing or just try to pinch a goal on the counter?
Mount finds a pocket of space in the Zenit box but he cannot bring the ball under control.
GOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAL! (Lukaku) Chelsea 1 Zenit 0
Chelsea have the breakthrough! Azpilicueta lofts a cross to the back post and Lukaku guides it into the bottom corner. Brilliant header.
69 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Wendel gives the ball away to Havertz who strides forward. He looks to play Lukaku in behind but the ball is cut out. The Russian side counter and Wendel curls a shot towards goal but Mendy makes a simple save.
67 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Havertz breaks into the Zenit box but Rakitskiy makes a strong challenge. Corner. Alonso takes it but once again the delivery is headed clear.
A second ball comes in, resulting in another corner which is also headed away.
64 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Havertz is coming on for Ziyech, who has been fine this evening. Chelsea win a free kick in Zenit territory. Alonso whips it in but Kritsyuk is fouled as he comes out to punch the ball.
61 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Azmoun breaks through on goal from nowehere. He carries the ball into the box and somehow Rudiger gets back to make a challenge just as the shot is being released. Chance wasted for Zenit.
59 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Chelsea are now all over Zenit but still the match remains goalless. Lukaku holds up play nicely but Mount's pass goes wayward. The England midfielder has not quite been on it tonight.
56 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Kovacic releases Alonso in behind but his cross is cut out before it can reach Ziyech in the six-yard box. Chelsea come again, this time Ziyech causing problems but his cross falls to a white shirt.
Once more, Tuchel's side attack. Lukaku holds the ball up and he plays it to a sprinting James who fires a shot into the side netting.
54 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Zenit break into the Chelsea box and Christensen makes an important intervention just in time. The subsequent corner is wasted.
Zenit win another corner but it is headed clear once more. Brighter start to this half for the Russian outfit.
50 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Rudiger nearly scores an outrageous goal! He picks up the ball in his own half, driving forward all the way into the Zenit box. Rudiger hammers his shot just wide of the right hand post. No goal - but the run has lifted the home crowd.
47 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
The hosts move the ball from side to side looking for an opportunity. The ball falls to Ziyech who releases a shot from the edge of the box but a comfortable save is made.
The second half is under way
No changes at half-time for Chelsea.
Chelsea have been by far the better team...
without creating any chances of note. I'd say Zenit have executed their game plan rather well.
Tuchel might make some changes at the break.
HALF-TIME: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
James picks out Lukaku in the box but the striker can only angle it over the bar - the ball was just a touch behind him.
Chelsea break down the left. Kovacic releases Mount who puts way too much on his cross. Lukaku ran front post, Mount hit his cross to the back post.
Azpilicueta is booked for accidentally putting his elbow in the face off Azmoun.
No added time. That's the half.
42 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Kritsyuk unconvincingly punches the corner away. The ball comes to Lukaku who holds it up with back to goal. He lays it off to Ziyech and Chelsea earn a corner.
The ball is curled to the back post but nobody is there to meet it. Lovely delivery from Mount.
39 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
The ball runs through the box to Rakitskiy who shifts it onto his left foot, only to curl it straight into the arms of Mendy.
Chelsea win a corner of their own at the other end.
37 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Jorginho finds a pocket of space. He plays Mount into the box but the England midfielder cannot pick out Lukaku.
A long ball finds Malcom and Zenit eventually win a corner.
35 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Mount breaks forward, rolling the ball into the path of Lukaku who has his shot blocked. Alonso then charges down the left wing, winning a corner after his cross is blocked. The delivery from James is poor and is easily headed clear.
32 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
James beats his man and fires a low cross into the box. Rakitskiy does well to stop it reaching its intended target.
30 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Zenit have not looked remotely threatening but they have defended well. They are well organised, sitting deep and then pressing Chelsea hard when they break into their half.
27 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Ziyech goes down on the edge of the Zenit box but no free kick comes. Fair decision.
25 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
James whips it in but Zenit just about scramble the ball clear. Mount tries to roll the ball into the feet of Lukaku but Barrios gets there first.
22 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
There is a small pocket of Zenit fans in the stands who are making themselves heard as Chelsea struggle to break down the Russian side.
Chelsea break into the Zenit box. Lukaku beats a defender before trying to roll the ball to Mount. The ball is intercepted but the Belgian striker wins a corner moments later.
20 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Zenit win a free kick in the Chelsea half. The ball is sprayed wide before Kuzyaev releases a wild shot that is in no danger of troubling the goal.
18 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Kuzyaev bursts in behind the Chelsea defence but Kovacic does remarkably well to chase him down and win the ball back with a well-timed slide tackle. Top midfield play.
Chelsea break via Mount. Lukaku makes a run in behind but he is ignored by Mount who goes the other way. The attack fizzles out.
15 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
James whips a cross towards Ziyech who cannot bring the ball under control. Chelsea come again, Lukaku makes an intelligent run in behind but Mount puts just too much on it.
13 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
"Champions of Europe, we know what we are" rings around Stamford Bridge. Azmoun flicks a header on to Claudinho who is tackled just in time by James - he was about to release a shot on goal from inside the Chelsea box.
10 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Mount bundles down the left wing, beating his defender before the ball just runs away from him.
Zenit launch an attack of their own, finding Malcom on the right. He is forced to turn back by some tight defending.
7 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Zenit are, understandably, sitting rather deep. Alonso attempts to break into the box but he is shut down.
5 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Azpilicueta sends a cross into the box but it has just too much on it for Lukaku. Chelsea regain the ball, continuing to dominate early possession.
2 min: Chelsea 0 Zenit 0
Chelsea get the match started, confidently passing the ball from side to side. A loose pass is pounced upon by Malcom but nothing comes of it. Sloppy from the champions.
Here we go!
Jorginho has just collected the Uefa player of the year award while Tuchel is handed the manager award before kick-off.
The players are out onto the pitch
Stamford Bridge is packed as you would expect.
Zenit team and subs
— FC Zenit in English✨ (@fczenit_en) September 14, 2021
Chelsea team and subs
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) September 14, 2021
Hello and welcome to Telegraph Sport's live coverage of the Champions League
Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante will not be involved in the club's Champions League opener against Zenit St Petersburg, manager Thomas Tuchel said on Monday ahead of their Group H clash against the Russian side.
Kante has been struggling with an ankle injury this season, and was substituted at halftime against Liverpool before the international break when the problem flared up again and he subsequently missed France's World Cup qualifiers.
Tuchel was hopeful Kante would be back in action against Zenit but now expects the 30-year-old to return for Sunday's Premier League trip to Tottenham Hotspur.
"N'Golo had two training sessions yesterday and trained again today, but the Champions League game comes a bit too early for him" Tuchel told a news conference ahead of Tuesday's match at Stamford Bridge.
"We won't take the risk with him now at this moment of the season. We have decided to give him another load in training tomorrow... (he will) train with us all on Friday to be ready totally for Tottenham."
Tuchel added Chelsea will also be without American forward Christian Pulisic as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.
Chelsea's £50 million signing Ben Chilwell has yet to play this season and Tuchel said the full back must be patient with Marcos Alonso preferred on the left as a wing back.
"It's been difficult for him, from a Champions League win, then it was individually for him a tough Euros because he felt he could have played a part for England," Tuchel said.
"When I arrived I felt he was mentally tired which is unlucky because Alonso had a full pre-season. We had some talks with Chilly... He's in the race now and with a good mental attitude."
Chelsea were knocked out in the group stages the last time they tried to defend their Champions League crown and captain Cesar Azpilicueta said they wanted to avoid a repeat of the elimination which cost coach Roberto Di Matteo his job in 2012.
"It was a very bad experience, painful because I came from (Olympique de) Marseille and when I arrived to Chelsea just after they won, it was a tough moment to be out at the group stage," Azpilicueta said.
"I want to help make sure that doesn't happen again."