Thomas Tuchel may not live to regret Chelsea’s draw at Zenit but on such fine margins seasons can turn

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·4-min read
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  • Chelsea
    Chelsea
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Thomas Tuchel
    German association football manager and former player
  • Timo Werner
    Timo Werner
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Thomas Tuchel gambled – and only time will tell how costly a 3-3 draw with Zenit Saint Petersburg proves for him and Chelsea.

The German made eight changes for a game his side needed to win to ensure they progressed to the Champions League knockout stage as group winners.

It might have taken an injury-time wonder strike from Magomed Ozdoev to deny the European champions victory in Russia – but it is on such fine margins that seasons can turn.

Second place in Group H now means Chelsea have a high chance of drawing Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the round of 16, which would put the defence of their crown in serious jeopardy.

While topping the group would not have ensured smooth passage when the competition resumes next year, Bayern – in particular – stand out as the team to avoid, while a rejuvenated Real may be a very different prospect to the team Tuchel eliminated at the semi-final stage last season.

Tuchel will have known the dangers of making so many changes – but had already made it clear that the visit of Leeds on Saturday was his priority after seeing his side drop from first to third in the Premier League at the weekend.

He was heavily-critical of his players afterwards, but his approach nearly paid off. Yet the truth is that a win would have flattered Chelsea – and a draw was the least Zeeserved after forcing Kepa Arrizabalaga to produce heroics.

For the second time in as many games, Chelsea conceded three goals – but it could have been so much worse.

On the plus side, Timo Werner had arguably his finest game for club – and Romelu Lukaku was on the scoresheet and lasted 75 minutes after making his first start since recovering from an ankle injury.

Less encouraging for Tuchel was the fragility of his midfield – albeit without the injured Jorginho, N’Golo Kante and Covid-hit Mateo Kovacic.

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Chelsea’s defence also looked susceptible whenever pressed by Zenit, with the home side creating a succession of clear-cut chances.

And so Chelsea relinquished top spot in Group H, just days after doing likewise in the title race at home - and prompted fresh questions about dip that is extending by the week.

It had all started so well for Chelsea, with Saul – playing at wing-back – bursting forward in the opening minute to force a save from Mikhail Kerzhakov and win an early corner.

From that set-piece, Werner opened the scoring with Ross Barkley’s in-swinger whipped in right under the crossbar where the German was waiting, unmarked, to convert.

It was the fastest goal Chelsea had ever scored in the Champions League and in those opening moments the visitors repeatedly created openings, but failed to take advantage.

Mason Mount then saw a close-range effort blocked by Kerzhakov before Zenit turned the game on its head. Kepa had already been required to deny Malcolm in a one-on-one, while Sardar Azmoun headed wide from close range.

Tuchel’s half-time team talk made an impression, with his side significantly improving after the restart.

Chelsea did not heed those warnings and Zenit grew in confidence as they increasingly exposed their opponents.

On 38 minutes they were level when Douglas Santos’ cross was headed home by Claudinho. They were ahead when Malcolm sent Azmoun clear three minutes later and he slipped his finish past Kepa.

It could have been worse for Chelsea before the break when the same player was through on goal again, but on this occasion could not beat the keeper.

Tuchel’s half-time team talk made an impression, with his side significantly improving after the restart. Zenit were forced to retreat and denied possession until Chelsea found an equaliser of real quality just after the hour.

Barkley and Werner both combined on the edge of the box before the latter squared to Lukaku to convert from close range.

 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Kepa was called into action again, with his best save of the match when pushing away Azmoun’s powerful header when diving low to clear from the goal-line.

With just five minutes of the 90 remaining Chelsea took the lead with what looked like the winner when substitute Christian Pulisic played in Werner.

In a congested box, the striker showed quick feet before lashing a low shot into the bottom corner.

It would have been cruel on Zenit and they got a deserved equaliser four minutes into stoppage time. Twice Chelsea failed to clear the danger before the ball fell to Ozdoev 20 yards out, and he struck a powerful effort into the top corner.

Just how much Tuchel comes to rue that goal remains to be seen.

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