Chelsea 1-0 Zenit: Thomas Tuchel’s side were not at their best but secured all three points
The striker was again the difference – this 1-0 win over a resilient Zenit St Petersburg ensuring their title defence began with some flourish and celebration rather than an underwhelming draw.
This had been the sort of game that you could easily have seen them slipping up in last season. There were five of them in the league under Thomas Tuchel, those draws against dogged opponents who refuse to give up any space. That’s also one difference between last season and now.
Whereas the Champions League was won through canny tactical calculation – where the little details against top sides matter, in a way that can actually be more tortuous against lesser teams – Chelsea do have a more direct option now. They have a rather vintage option. The goal, when it came, was just a classic striker’s finish.
Cesar Azpilicueta played one of those deep curling crosses that he loves to try, and Lukaku just put enough space between himself and Dmitri Chistyakob to head home well. You don’t need calculation when you can send it to a sure thing. That’s what Lukaku is becoming, with four goals in four games now.
This was all the more impressive because Zenit had a superior tactical plan than most of the Premier League sides Chelsea slipped up to last season. They really made them work for it, and could even have claimed an equaliser before the end.
Perhaps this was the kind of game that Chelsea have to get used to now, the sort of response that becomes more common when you become European champions. It was a classic attack-against-defence game.
Zenit had very little interest in stepping out from their box and often amassed nine players around it. It made them exceptionally difficult to break down. There were three moments in the first half when Mason Mount wriggled free from the knotted defence around him only to pass straight to a Zenit defender. There were that many white shirts within 30 yards of goal, and they were petty sturdy in the tackle.
It was consequently one of those games where the defending team suddenly look more dangerous, precisely because there is more space at the other end of the pitch. It only takes one break.
Yaroslav Rakitskyy actually had the first shot on target of the game just before half-time, trying a speculative effort from distance. Edouard Mendy, awarded the prize for European goalkeeper of the year before kick-off, was naturally equal to it.
On the other side of half-time, when Chelsea were starting to get a little tetchy about the way the evening was going, Sardar Azmoun suddenly found himself bearing down on goal. It was only a brilliant interception from Antonio Rudiger, nipping the ball away from the side, that prevented some embarrassment for the European champions.
Rudiger was one of the best players on the pitch and offered one of Chelsea’s best moments up until the goal. The centre-half picked the ball up just outside his own box, then just kept running with it, beating at least two Zenit defenders before he was just inside the other box. His resulting shot flashed just wide.
Inspired as the run was, it was also an indication of how ragged Zenit were becoming. Chelsea might have even been ahead before Lukaku’s header when Hakim Ziyech seemed to get free in the box. The playmaker’s pass was just behind Lukaku, though. Azpilicueta’s cross wasn’t. It was perfect, as was Lukaku’s little movement to give himself the space.
There was one more scare for Chelsea when an Asmoun ball flashed across the box for Artem Dzubya to scrape with his studs as he slid in for it, ultimately colliding with Mendy. The goalkeeper was able to stay on but looked in pain, and was holding his side as Tuchel came to comfort him at the end of the game. All around him, though, Chelsea were celebrating.
The first European game with fans back since 2019 also brought a first win of the season, and a fitting start for the champions. Lukaku has taken them to a higher level – and the team as a whole have set a standard for the rest of Europe to meet.