Last season, when they won the Champions League, Chelsea were considered the best player in the competition, the best midfielder, the best goalkeeper and the best coach.
This season, as they prepare to defend the title, they have Romelu Lukaku. And quite an acquisition that it turns out to be. Barely four games in the second coming and Lukaku has silenced all the skeptics and he steals the show.
A goal against Arsenal, his first for the club, two against Aston Villa, his first at Stamford Bridge, then this one, his first in Europe for the Blues, the only goal of a difficult night where Thomas Tuchel’s team was struggling against Zenit St Petersburg.
Romelu lukaku celebrates after scoring the only goal of the game against Zenit St. Petersburg on Tuesday night
The striker climbed the highest to return home after Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross in the middle of the second half of the European meeting.
It was the striker’s fourth goal in all competitions since returning to Chelsea from Inter Milan in the summer transfer window
Lukaku looked elated as he celebrated what turned out to be the game-winner in front of delighted Chelsea fans
Chelsea 3-4-2-1: Mendy 6; Azpilicueta 7.5 (Silva 83), Christensen 6, Rudiger 8; James 7, Jorginho 7, Kovacic 6, Alonso 6 (Chilwell 83); Ziyech 5.5 (Havertz 63, 6), Mont 6 (Loftus-Cheek 90 + 3); Lukaku 7.5.
Goals: Lukaku 69
Director: Thomas Tuchel 6.5
Zenith 5-4-1: Kritsyuk 6; Sutormin 6, Barrios 6, Christyakov 7, Rakitskiy 6 (Krugovoy 88), Santos 6; Malcom 6 (Dzyuba 75, 5), Wendel 6 (Erokhin 76, 5), Kuzyaev 6 (Kravtsov 82), Claudinho 6; Azmoun 6.
Director: Sergei Semak 6
Ref: Bartosz Frankowski (POL) 6
With just over 20 minutes remaining when Cesar Azpilicueta formed a magnificent cross and Lukaku assessed the flight of the ball, adjusted his feet, leapt over his marker and directed his head down powerfully, to the inside the post.
“An excellent head,” admitted Tuchel. – That’s why he’s here. He likes to score and he was still decisive for us, that’s great.
“We didn’t create a lot of chances for him, but he’s a guy who brings confidence and conviction, and takes pressure from others around him.
“You don’t find a lot of forwards of this quality. Goals change the whole momentum of the game.
The collateral you might expect for £ 97.5million, perhaps. One chance, one goal, one fatal strike, the murderous touch to turn a point into three just as the festive air at Stamford Bridge drained into an anxious silence.
With Juventus in Turin afterwards, it was important for Chelsea to take as many points as possible in their first game and such a positive result sometimes seemed unlikely in the first half.
UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin appeared on the pitch ahead of kick-off to present prizes to Jorginho (best player), N’Golo Kante (best midfielder), Edouard Mendy (best goalkeeper) and Tuchel ( best trainer).
But Chelsea got off to a slow start as the champions Russia changed their usual lineup to reflect Tuchel’s last three, with midfielder Wilmar Barrios deployed as one of three center-backs.
They broke in tackles and quickly snapped on turnover with Brazilians Claudinho and Malcom trying to leap forward to support lone striker Sardar Azmoun from their sidelined positions.
But despite all their promises, they were able to create very little and Chelsea took control in midfield as half-time approached and, after the break, moved the ball at a more sustained pace, and the visitors withdrew.
Zenit St Petersbug’s Dmitriy Chistyakov looked dejected as Lukaku and Chelsea players celebrated their header
Tuchel made a choppy figure on the sideline, spinning on his heels in frustration and exchanging thoughts with his coaching staff, as he had done during long games of the Aston Villa win on Saturday.
But he insisted he was happy with his team’s performance, saying: “We had to work really hard, but I felt tremendous intensity from us against a very strong opponent with very good players. .
“It was difficult for us in the first half to find a way to speed up the game, to be dangerous and to create touches in the box. We had to be very focused and aware because they have a lot of individual quality to forward. We did all that.
“Over time it got a little easier, we played better and it was difficult for them to constantly defend the spaces. It was a deserved victory.
Stamford Bridge faithful were in high spirits as they watched their team get off to a good start in their trophy defense
Antonio Rudiger stirred the atmosphere shortly after the break with a career run from deep in his own half, crisscrossing the middle of the pitch, passing two Zenit defenders to get to goal.
Rudiger grabbed him gently and his fierce strike narrowly spread and slammed into the billboards, but the supporters stood up, making their team roar.
“Sometimes you need that stuff,” Tuchel said. “It wasn’t too crazy but all of a sudden the gap widened and he tried to finish it himself.”
Moments later, Rudiger took a dip at the other end to stop Azmoun’s threat at the break and celebrated his successful challenge with a raised index finger in the air. Once again, the home crowd rose in response.
Thomas Tuchel looked pleased with his players as he shook hands with them after the referee’s full-time whistle
Tuchel made his first substitution shortly after the hour mark. Kai Havertz, goal hero that night in Porto, and Zenit sank deeper and deeper, until resistance was broken by the center from Azpilicueta. “A beautiful ball,” said Lukaku. “I just had to have the right timing. “
There was a late scare for Chelsea when substitute Artem Dzyuba nearly converted a low cross at the back post and crashed into goalkeeper Mendy.
But the champions escaped. They start their defense with a victory. Lukaku is getting stronger and stronger.
Scroll down to see how the Champions League night went …