Romelu Lukaku had received stifling attention from a well-organized and robust central defensive trio from Zenit St. Petersburg. Everywhere he turned he felt like a door was slammed in his face and as that tie entered his home stretch visitors must start to think they were controlling him and Chelsea.
But it only takes a second for Lukaku to break free. It only takes a movement or a moment to inflict the most severe punishment. This is the reason why Chelsea dug so deep to sign him again over the summer and why they were able to get off to a winning start in their Champions League defense.
When the ball flew from inside left to inside right for César Azpilicueta, Zenit defender Dmitri Chistyakov seemed to have Lukaku close at hand inside the penalty area. But then Azpilicueta lifted a nice cross at the far post and Chistyakov didn’t. Lukaku had spent the previous 68 minutes waiting, working, hiding. Now he had a great chance and he stood up to lead him down and with hallmark cruelty.
Thomas Tuchel commented on Monday that it was good that Lukaku hit the ground running on his return as forwards don’t like to wait for their goals. Lukaku is simply on fire. He now has four goals in four games and, despite the small sample size, it’s easy to think Chelsea have found the missing piece of the puzzle.
Lukaku’s header didn’t mean it was over as Zenit had a huge opportunity to equalize when Sander Azmoun crossed for substitute Artem Dzyuba, only for him to stretch and slice wide with the gaping goal. The lucky concession was surprising given how stingy Chelsea had been at the back. But they duly closed the result to give Tuchel the victory he had claimed. There is still a long way to go before the final, which will be played at Zenit’s Gazprom Arena, but, with Lukaku on board, Chelsea can dream of another triumph.
“Romelu’s performance was not easy,” Tuchel said. “We haven’t created a lot of chances for him, but he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t lose confidence. This is why he is a world class striker. It gives the team a lot of belief that a chance, or half a chance, might be enough. It is more than talent that he brings. It brings belief.
It was Tuchel’s first night game under the lights of Stamford Bridge in front of fans and the first time the stadium was packed for a European game since February last year. So much has happened since then, including Chelsea exploding out of nowhere to claim their second Champions League, and it’s crazy to think home fans couldn’t play any part in it – other than the when 2,000 were allowed to enter for the final group. game against Krasnodar last December.
The pre-game presentations were a nod to the history of the team. There were UEFA awards for Tuchel, Jorginho, Edouard Mendy and N’Golo Kanté, but it was about putting a sure foot forward, ensuring that the defending Russian Premier League champions did not cannot cause upheaval.
Chelsea know what they are: the European champions. And their support has let everyone know repeatedly. It’s soft and it helps to create an aura. Zenit, however, was not intimidated. They were compact in their 5-4-1 system and they flashed on the counter, although it’s one thing to be encouraged against this Chelsea defense, which marries pace, positioning and physique, and another to create. something clear. .
Chelsea had to be patient and Tuchel fought to remove the frustration he felt in the first half when his team couldn’t connect in the final third. Jorginho tried to play across the lines, to shake things up, while Mateo Kovacic was busy but Chelsea didn’t put Zenit goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk to work. Mason Mount missed a few passes and it didn’t happen for Hakim Ziyech.
Chelsea needed a spark and Antonio Rüdiger, a massive presence throughout, provided them in the 50th minute with an assault run from inside their half that ended in a snatch next to.
Chelsea’s intensity was greater in the second half, as was their intention, and they had a few half chances although Zenit felt they retained a punching chance at the break. There was a strong inspiration inside the stadium when Claudinho fired Azmoun before Rüdiger returned to tackle. And it wasn’t the first time.
Enter Lukaku. The center-forward would add almost a second late, only to be smothered by Douglas Santos. One was enough.