Chelsea opened their defence of the Champions League with a victory as Romelu Lukaku finally pierced Zenit St Petersburg’s stubborn resistance at Stamford Bridge.
Lukaku, a £97.5m summer signing from Inter Milan, has already demonstrated his goal threat in the Premier League and was on the mark again with his first goal for Chelsea in the competition they won for the second time against Manchester City in June.
Chelsea were made to work hard as Zenit dug in but manager Thomas Tuchel’s side stepped up the pace after the interval, Lukaku breaking the deadlock when he headed in at the far post from Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross in the 69th minute.
The holders deserved the victory but Zenit missed a glorious chance to snatch a point when substitute Artem Dzyuba slid wide from six yards as he tried to turn in Sardar Azmoun’s cross late on.
Chelsea’s victory was not a surprise given their status as Champions League holders and their impressive start to the season but this showed they are more than willing to do the dirty work to get the job done when required.
And it was Lukaku, the talisman, who showed once again what a difference he will make to Chelsea by providing the cutting edge they often lacked last season, even though they won Europe’s elite competition in Porto.
Lukaku’s chances were limited as Zenit defended well and with real resilience but he pounced on the first opportunity he was given to score with a towering header.
Chelsea struggled to make any impression in the first half but it was clear Tuchel had ordered his players to move through the gears and they were much more forceful after the break.
If Lukaku is the main man in attack, it was defender Antonio Rudiger who set the tone at both ends to lift the Chelsea fans inside Stamford Bridge.
Rudiger lifted the noise levels with a surging run from inside his own half just after the re-start which ended with a shot that flashed just wide. He then made a vital challenge at the other end as Zenit’s Iranian forward Azmoun threatened to give the visitors a shock lead, celebrating his interception with a fist pump to the crowd who appreciate the German’s uncompromising style.
It was not Chelsea at their most impressive but, as they did against Aston Villa in the Premier League on Saturday, this is now a side that is almost the complete package. They are a side who find a way to win and Tuchel will be delighted to get three points on the board in the Champions League, especially as the other European superpower in Group H, Juventus, started their campaign with an impressive 3-0 win against Malmo in Sweden.
Tuchel will know there is much more to come from a Chelsea side tipped for success at home and abroad this season and he will be more than satisfied to start with three points.