Zenit v Chelsea | Wednesday 8th December, 17:45 | BT Sports
Chelsea make the long trip to St Petersburg to face Zenit, knowing that they are through to the round of 16 no matter the result.
But to finish top of Group H, all the Blues must do is better what Juventus do at home to Malmo. And after Saturday’s defeat to West Ham, Thomas Tuchel will want a reaction from his side in Russia.
Zenit are booked for third in the group and a place in the Europa League after Christmas, so there’s very little riding on this contest, which will be played in bitterly cold temperatures of -11°C.
Given that isn’t ideal football conditions and the fact there’s not too much at stake, I’m expecting this to be a slow burner.
Despite what happened to Chelsea at the weekend, they are generally solid at nullifying their opponents and keeping clean sheets. They’ve won all three previous away games in the UCL against Russian opponents, keeping clean sheets on each occasion.
Plus, since Thomas Tuchel took charge of his first UCL game for Chelsea in February, the Blues have only conceded three goals in 12 games, keeping nine clean sheets. That’s a strong record!
The Blues battled to a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge when these sides met on the opening matchday. While Zenit were only beaten here by the same score against Juventus, which shows that this could be quite a low-scoring affair.
Looking at Infogol, Chelsea’s 2.7xGA (expected goals against) is the best of the sides in the group stage. Meanwhile, Zenit’s 5.2xGA is only bettered by five others, including the Blues. So, the Russian Premier League leaders haven’t conceded a lot of clear-cut chances, despite conceding seven goals in their five games.
And with Tuchel having a few injuries to deal with, we could see something a bit more makeshift with Callum Hudson-Odoi filling in at left wing-back, while Saul could partner Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the middle of the park.
On top of that, Romelu Lukaku could continue his return from injury with a start. The Belgian came off the bench at half-time at the London Stadium but looked rusty during that second half, so he’s not yet firing on all cylinders. While the question remains about whether Tuchel can bring the best out of him with the players around him.
With all that in mind, it has the feel that Chelsea will go there and try to grind out a positive result to get them to that all-important first place. This season we’ve seen the Blues win 14 games in the PL and UCL with 11 of those seeing under four goals.
So, with 79% of Chelsea’s wins in those two competitions being low-scoring affairs, the 13/10 available for an away win and under four goals looks a solid play, given both defences have been fairly strong to limit chances.
I’ve tried to look for alternative angles into this one, but little else stood out. The bookies have a very big price disparity on the number of Ruben Loftus-Cheek shots though.
The powerful 25-year-old is likely to be given the nod in a defensive midfield role once again with the Blues injury list. He’s started six times in this position, hitting 11 shots. The 2+ line has been landed in four of those. Plus, he hit two in a 27-minute cameo against Newcastle.
Those starts saw him have four efforts in Malmo, two in Premier League games against Southampton, Man Utd and West Ham. While he only had one as they ground out a win at Watford.
Starting as a CDM allow him to make late runs from deep to support the attacking play, which means he can feed off pull-backs to the edge of the box or any poor clearances.
Chelsea average nearly 18 shots per game in the UCL, while Zenit face on average 12.4 shots per game. So, I’ll take Loftus-Cheek as one who could pull the trigger.
I will also state that he could spend the game marshalling Brazilians Malcom and Claudinho, who can draw plenty of fouls. Loftus-Cheek gave away three fouls against Malmo in a game that he was cautioned.
Plus, RLC has given away two fouls in each of his last three appearances, escaping sanction. European officials tend to be stricter though. I don’t expect to see plenty of cards in this one, his quote of 15/2 (Bet365) could look big if he starts to rack them up and draw the referee’s attention.