September 15, (THEWILL) – UEFA Champions League holders Chelsea needed a finisher to mount a strong defense of their continental title this season and succeeded in enticing Romelu Lukaku to return from Serie A winners Inter Milan and in his opening UCL tie on Tuesday, the clinical forward proved the difference in their 1-0 home win against Zenit St Petersburg.
It was a scrappy performance by the otherwise tactical defending champions. Manager Thomas Tuchel made five changes to the side that beat Aston Villa 3-0 at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. And, his team’s performance left him frustrated on the sidelines.
Zenit matched the solid and compact defensive traits of their hosts in an impressive display that could have pleased Tuchel if they were not doing it against his own UCL interests. The Russian side was able to effectively restrict the Blues to very few opportunities that until the 47th minute, there was no Chelsea shot on target to applaud.
The expanding game continued in the second half but with Hakim Ziyech unable to rise to the occasion, Tuchel brought on Champions League final hero Kai Havertz in the 63rd minute and there was a marked improvement in their forward play.
Yet, it was not until nine minutes after the hour mark before Tuchel’s side eventually broke the deadlock. Defender Cesar Azpilicueta whipped a cross for their pointsman Lukaku to head in from close range. It was a deserving reward for the Belgian’s work-rate and hold up play all through.
Zenit’s Sergey Semak introduced Artem Dzyuba and Aleksandr Erokhin in the closing stages for what could have been an inspiring substitution if only Dzyuba took the goal-scoring chance that opened up for him in the 80th minute. But, he poked his effort wide when it looked easier to score from close range and the golden opportunity was lost.
In a game where the Blues were not at their most efficient, Lukaku made all the difference as he did for Milan towards helping them grab the Scudetto from the firm grip of Juventus in the Serie A last season. He was brought in for this and he has shown he can be relied on to get them out of tight matches with full points in tow.