Once again Thomas Tuchel was left to reflect on Chelsea’s inability to take care of the small details. The European champions are not playing with the right attitude at the moment and although they almost got away with it this time it was not a surprise when they ended up relinquishing top spot in Group H to Juventus after this chaotic draw with Zenit St Petersburg.
Tuchel was not a happy man. He did not want to dwell on confidence-boosting goals for Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner. Tuchel had watched in despair when his side twice relinquished leads during their 3-2 defeat against West Ham last weekend and, just when it seemed that Werner had restored order against Zenit by driving in his second goal of the evening, Chelsea capitulated again, their shoddy defence crumbling in stoppage time and allowing Magomed Ozdoev to blast in a stunning equaliser for the Russian side.
Chelsea, who could face Ajax, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the last 16, should have handled the situation better. Andreas Christensen was outmuscled in the air by the substitute Artem Dzyuba when Zenit went long and Ozdoev had space to shoot from 20 yards. The substitute’s drive flew past Kepa Arrizabalaga, who could not get a strong enough hand to it, and Chelsea had found a way to fall below Juve, who finished first after beating Malmo 1-0. “If you concede six goals in two matches my ambition to talk about individual performances is not so high,” Tuchel said. “We had a very good first 15 minutes and we forgot why we are the better team. Once we change our behaviour, we get punished. Our behaviour changes when we have a lead. This is something we should never do.”
Chelsea, who began in pole position after smashing Juventus 4-0 last month, had made a deceptively commanding start under the roof at the Gazprom Arena.
The signs were promising when they went ahead after two minutes, Ross Barkley swinging in a corner from the left and Sardar Azmoun inadvertently glancing the ball on for Werner to tap in from a yard out.
At that stage it seemed that Tuchel’s decision to make eight changes would pay off. For 15 minutes Chelsea were dominant. Werner’s pace caused problems and initially it seemed that Zenit had no way out of their half.
Yet Zenit, who drop into the Europa League, were allowed back into the contest. The ball kept running away from Lukaku, who looked rusty on his first start since 20 October, and Zenit twice went close to equalising midway through the half, Malcom shooting too close to Arrizabalaga and Azmoun heading wide.
Chelsea briefly threatened to restore order, Mason Mount testing Mikhail Kerzakhov, but there were too many errors. Callum Hudson-Odoi, inconsistent at right wing-back, was booked and it was clear that Zenit had identified Saúl Ñíguez as a weak link on the opposite flank.
This was another night to forget for Saúl. The Spaniard’s performances in central midfield have been poor and he was just as unconvincing in a defensive role, even though he almost scored in the first minute. Saúl lacked positional awareness and Tuchel will surely be having second thoughts about using him as an alternative to the injured Ben Chilwell, not least because it was the 27-year-old’s shanked clearance that led to Zenit levelling in the 38th minute.
Chelsea were all over the place. César Azpilicueta was unable to head the ball to safety and when Douglas Santos crossed from the left Claudinho headed past Arrizabalaga after peeling behind Malang Sarr.
With Thiago Silva and Antonio Rüdiger given the night off, Chelsea were a mess. Sarr toiled in central defence and there was also a lack of control in midfield with N’Golo Kanté, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic missing.
Tuchel had experimented, moving Reece James into the middle, but it was too easy for Zenit to thread passes behind Barkley and the England international. Too careless, Barkley was robbed in a dangerous position after 41 minutes. Christensen foolishly tried to play offside and Malcom sent Azmoun clear to finish after rounding Arrizabalaga.
Filling in for Édouard Mendy, Arrizabalaga would make further crucial saves from Azmoun. Chelsea clung on and levelled in the 62nd minute, Werner playing a one-two with Barkley before gifting Lukaku his first goal since 14 September.
Confidence restored, Chelsea pressed for a winner and first place should have been theirs when Christian Pulisic, on for Hudson‑Odoi, released Werner, who swerved inside before cracking a low shot past Kerzhakov.
Instead Zenit left Tuchel bemoaning his side’s lack of focus.