Both boasting unbeaten records in their domestic leagues so far, Chelsea host Zenit St Petersburg on Tuesday, as the Champions League group stage returns.
Three months after the defending champions triumphed in Porto, they start their Group H campaign against a side sitting top of the Russian Premier League and aiming to improve on last year’s early exit.
An ultimately comfortable 3-0 victory over Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge on Saturday sees Chelsea in ideal shape to begin the defence of their continental crown this week.
Returning hero Romelu Lukaku’s clinical brace – with a goal at either end of the game – helped ensure victory for Thomas Tuchel’s men, despite the Villans giving goalkeeper Edouard Mendy – who kept an English record nine clean sheets in the Champions League last season – a busy afternoon.
The Blues, therefore, have a record of three wins and a draw so far in the Premier League, and have conceded only once – again demonstrating the steely edge they have developed since Tuchel took to the dugout in January.
Upon his arrival, Chelsea went 14 games unbeaten – the longest initial run without defeat by any manager in the club’s history – and the 2020 runner-up with Paris St. Germain eventually went one better with the London club last season – helping them lift their second Champions League trophy.
Now in pursuit of a third, Chelsea have repatriated one of the world’s top attacking talents, as Lukaku comes back to England as the club’s record signing. Already, Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer – who last term netted 24 times as Inter won their first Scudetto for a decade – looks set to add the required finishing touch to a star-studded squad.
Assembled at extraordinary expense, the capital club’s playing staff features Jorginho – recently named UEFA Men’s Player of the Year – N’Golo Kante (UEFA’s top midfielder) and Mendy (Goalkeeper of the Year), while Tuchel claimed the coach’s prize.
Starting as strong favourites to progress, then, they will be the first Chelsea side to tackle one of Russia’s grandest clubs this week, as they have never met Zenit before.
In a similar vein to their opening matchday hosts, Zenit scored three times at the weekend, as they beat Akhmat Grozny 3-1 in the Russian top flight. Goals by Brazilian pair Wendel and Malcom – plus a strike from Russia midfielder Aleksandr Yerokhin – secured another three points; helping them take an early stranglehold on a division they have dominated in recent years.
Head coach Sergei Semak – a five-time national champion as a player – had previously enjoyed spells as an assistant with both Zenit and Russia before taking the top job at modest Ufa; leading them to a club record sixth-placed top-flight finish in 2018 and then becoming Zenit boss in May of that year. He has since led his current club to three successive titles and is now targeting elusive European progress as well.
The former midfielder has a tall task ahead of him, though, as the Russian champions must not only compete with Chelsea for a berth in the last 16, but also Italian giants Juventus and Swedish champions Malmo.
Of course, the ultimate dream would be leading his side out at Zenit’s imposing Saint Petersburg Arena headquarters in the Champions League final next spring. Also the venue for seven games at Euro 2020, their home ground is a stronghold for the Zenitchiki, but last year they were beaten by Borussia Dortmund, Lazio and Club Brugge away from home, as they finished last in their group.
This season, they have added a further dash of Brazilian flair to a growing collection, as Claudinho – fresh from winning Olympic gold with Brazil – recently signed up from Brasileiro upstarts RB Bragantino. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder finished as joint-top scorer in Brazil’s Serie A last term, with 18 league goals, and could play an integral role as Zenit seek to survive the group stage for the first time since 2015.
Now kicking off the club’s ninth Champions League campaign proper – and a third in succession – they have reached the first knockout round in 2011-12, 2013-14 and 2015-16 but have yet to progress further.
Chelsea form (all competitions):
Zenit St Petersburg form (all competitions):
We say: Chelsea 2-1 Zenit St Petersburg
A relatively serene start to the new season and home advantage should see Chelsea make a successful return to the competition they won in May.
Undoubtedly, as the dominant force in Russia, the visitors should pose a threat to the Blues at the back – but Zenit will again come up short away from home, as they cannot repel Lukaku and company for a full 90 minutes.