Chelsea will be aiming to kickstart the defence of their UEFA Champions League crown with a win when they take on Zenit St Petersburg this midweek.

The 2021/22 edition of the UEFA Champions League kicks off this Tuesday night and trophy holders Chelsea will be in action at Stamford Bridge as they face off against Russian giants Zenit St Petersburg in a Group H clash.

Chelsea enjoyed a marvellous run in the Champions League last term, going on to beat the likes of Atletico Madrid, Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City on their way to lifting the most coveted trophy in European club football. Following that, Thomas Tuchel led his team to the UEFA Super Cup win, while the Blues are joint table-toppers in the Premier League as well in the new season.

Indeed, Chelsea are yet to lose a game in the new campaign and head into Tuesday’s clash on the back of a hard-fought 3-0 victory over Aston Villa. In buoyant mood, the Blues will take some stopping on current form.

Zenit St Petersburg, meanwhile, endured a torrid time in the Champions League last season, as they crashed out at the group stages. And things will be tricky once again for Sergei Semak’s side, considering that they will also have to contend with Juventus and Malmo in the group, apart from Chelsea.

However, Zenit have made an impressive start to the new season, kicking things off with the Russian Super Cup triumph in the summer, following which they have gone on a seven-game unbeaten run in the Russia Premier League, where they are at the top of the table, after a 3-1 win over Akhmat Grozny last time out.

Ahead of this much-anticipated encounter at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at both teams.

Team News & Tactics

Chelsea

N'Golo Kante ruled out for Chelsea. (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

N’Golo Kante ruled out for Chelsea. (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Chelsea will be without key midfielder N’Golo Kante, who is yet to recover fully from the injury he picked up against Liverpool. In addition, winger Christian Pulisic has also been ruled out after returning with an injury from international duty. Interestingly, fringe players like Malang Sarr, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley have been named in the squad by manager Thomas Tuchel.

The German tactician is unlikely to change anything in the way he sets his team up although there could be alterations in personnel. Edouard Mendy ought to keep hold of his place in the starting XI ahead of Kepa Arrizabalaga. There should be a couple of changes in defence with Andreas Christensen coming in for Thiago Silva, whose game-time needs to be managed.

The other change should see Cesar Azpilicueta moving into the centre-back slot in place of Trevoh Chalobah as Reece James returns to the lineup at right wing-back after missing the weekend clash due to suspension. Marcos Alonso has started the season strongly and should start again at left wing-back ahead of Ben Chilwell.

Saul Niguez made his Chelsea debut in the weekend win against Aston Villa but had a forgettable outing. So, we can expect Jorginho to start from the off here, partnering with Mateo Kovacic in the middle of the park.

Moving into the final third of the pitch, Mason Mount ought to return to the starting lineup as one of the two attacking midfielders. Kai Havertz ought to hold on to his place, meaning Hakim Ziyech will be the one missing out. Romelu Lukaku has been in red-hot form since returning to Chelsea and should spearhead their attack again this Tuesday.

Probable Lineup (3-4-2-1): Mendy; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; James, Jorginho, Kovacic, Alonso; Mount, Havertz; Lukaku

Zenit St Petersburg

Zenit St Petersburg manager Sergei Semak has a few selection headaches heading into the game as Dejan Lovren, Vyacheslav Karavaev and Magomed Ozdoev are all ruled out of the contest with injuries. In addition, Wilmar Barrios has not travelled with the rest of the squad due to coronavirus restrictions after he was with Brazil in the international break, although the manager hinted that he could arrive late.

Semak has previously shown that he can switch his setup to a three-man defensive formation based on their opposition. However, given the form that Zenit have been in, he is likely to stick with what is working quite well for his team currently. Stanislav Kritciuk and Mikhail Kerzhakov have been rotated in goal so far, and the latter could start on Tuesday after sitting out the weekend clash.

In front of him, Zenit should set up in a 4-4-2 formation against Chelsea, with Dmitry Chistyakov and Yaroslav Rakitskiy forming the crux of the backline, flanked by Aleksey Sutormin and Douglas Santos as the full-backs on the right and left sides, respectively. The duo will have its task cut out against the combination play of Chelsea’s wide attacking midfielders and wing-backs.

Moving into the middle of the park, with Barrios’ all but ruled out, the onus will be on the pair of Daler Kuzyaev and Wendel to keep things tight in the middle of the park. Former Barcelona forward, Malcom, ought to take up the right flank from where he will look to exploit the spaces left behind by Marcos Alonso while Andrey Mostovoy slots in on the left.

Sardar Azmoun, who rejected a move to Tottenham in the summer, ought to pair up alongside Artem Dzyuba in the two-pronged strike force for Zenit against Chelsea.

Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Kerzhakov; Sutormin, Chistyakov, Rakitskiy, Santos; Malcom, Wendel, Kuzyaev, Mostovoy; Azmoun, Dzyuba

Key Stats

  • This will be the first meeting between Chelsea and Zenit St Petersburg in European competition. The Blues are unbeaten in six previous games against Russian sides in the UEFA Champions League (W5 D1).
  • Zenit are winless in their last seven Champions League games (D1 L6) – their longest run without a victory in their history in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. Indeed, they failed to win all six of their group stage games in the competition last season (D1 L5).
  • Chelsea are unbeaten in their last 11 group stage games in the Champions League (W7 D4), with their last such defeat coming against Valencia in September 2019.
  • Zenit won their first-ever away game against an English opponent in European competitions (3-0 v Bradford City in the UEFA Intertoto Cup). However, they have lost each of their last three trips to England – most recently against Liverpool in February 2013 in the Europa League.
  • In Champions League history, the reigning champions have only lost their first game of the following campaign on two of 27 occasions (AC Milan in 1994-95 and Liverpool in 2019-20).

Player to Watch

Romelu Lukaku

Who else but that man Romelu Lukaku. Since returning to Chelsea this past summer in a club-record transfer, the Belgian international has been near-unstoppable. Having bullied Arsenal on his second debut for the Blues, the 28-year-old marked his homecoming at Stamford Bridge with a breathtaking double against Aston Villa at the weekend.

Three goals in three games make for a very good reading for the Blues’ superstar and he, as well as his manager, will be hoping that he is able to carry that form forward into the continental competition and help his team kick things off with a win.

Prediction

Chelsea 2-0 Zenit St Petersburg

Zenit St Petersburg have made an impressive start to the new season in domestic competitions but their form in Europe in the recent past has been woeful. So, coming up against a Chelsea side that has looked in fine fettle in the new season, that too in their own backyard, will be anything but easy.

Add to it, the fact that the Russians are missing key players like Lovren, Barrios and Karavaev means that things could get much trickier. And, all things considered, The Hard Tackle is predicting the home team to ease to a comfortable win, with Romelu Lukaku likely to be among the goals yet again.

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