Chelsea led 3-2 in Russia with moments left after second-half strikes from Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner, but a late equaliser cost them top spot their Champions League group
Thomas Tuchel made eight changes to his Chelsea team for their Champions League match away to Zenit St Petersburg, giving some fringe players a chance to impress, but the Blues were made to settle for second in their group after a 3-3 draw and face a nervous wait to learn their last 16 opponents with Bayern Munich and Real Madrid among the possibilities.
Timo Werner took less than two minutes to put the Blues in front, tapping in from point-blank range after a corner was flicked into his path, but Chelsea stagnated and went behind at the break as Claudinho and Serdar Azmoun struck in quick succession.
Romelu Lukaku – making his first start since returning from injury – brought the Blues back level just after the hour mark with a tap-in from Werner’s ball across.
Werner looked like being the hero with time ticking away, beating Zenit goalkeeper Mikhail Kerzhakov with a confident low finish just five minutes from time, but there was an even later twist as Magomed Ozdoev equalised in stoppage time.
Here are the main talking points for a dramatic game in Russia.
1. Reece James in midfield
With Jorginho and N’Golo Kante both absent from the starting XI for different reasons, Tuchel decided to attempt a different approach by moving right-back James into the centre of midfield.
The England international has played there before, but predominantly during his loan spell at Wigan Athletic rather than an away game in the Champions League.
James’ test wasn’t the easiest, given the number of changes elsewhere in the XI, but there was a feeling he could be an option in the middle in games where Chelsea want to attack more from wing-back.
2. Kepa preparing for a busy January
Edouard Mendy is due to join up with his Senegal teammates for the Africa Cup of Nations, leaving the former Athletic Bilbao stopper as a likely starter for league and cup matches in January, so a return to action may have partly been to keep the Spaniard fresh against opponents who ensured Mendy was a busy man in the reverse fixture.
After a quiet first quarter of the game, he needed to make a big save from Zenit winger Malcom to keep his team in front.
He wasn’t given much of a chance for either of the home side’s two first-half goals but needed to intervene with more big stops either side of the break to keep Chelsea in the game, and will hope he has shown he shouldn’t be written off just yet.
3. Saul auditioning in a different role
“I don’t know where he goes from this performance,” Tuchel said after Saul Niguez underwhelmed in Chelsea’s Premier League win at Watford, but the Spaniard was handed another chance in Russia and some might have wondered how many more opportunities will arrive.
Whether or not Mateo Kovacic’s positive Covid test offered the loanee his opportunity, he seized it with a strong early run to create the corner from which Werner opened the scoring.
Saul started the game at left wing-back, and got forward well, but his defensive contribution was more suspect as Zenit looked to attack down his side of the pitch.
However, as the game progressed, he impressed Tuchel enough to be given a 75-minute run-out, suggesting he might have a role to play in the coming weeks with Ben Chilwell still out injured.
4. Worries at centre-back
As things stand, Chelsea have four senior defenders out of contract next summer, though efforts have been made to revive extension talks with Andreas Christensen.
While the Blues may be forced to dip into the transfer market, Malang Sarr remains a long-term option at the back and was given just his fourth start of the season in St Petersburg.
Sarr started in a back three with Christensen and Cesar Azpilcueta, and had a couple of nervy moments in the first half as Malcom and Azmoun both threatened for the home side before a lack of coherence between the centre-backs saw Claudinho left open to equalise.
While the French defender is still just 22, the performance might explain why he is currently more of a long-term prospect than an immediate option, but Christensen was equally to blame as the visitors went from 1-0 up to 2-1 down in the blink of an eye.
5. Chelsea could be made to rue failure to finish first
The ball was in Chelsea’s court before kick-off, as they knew a win would be enough for top spot thanks to the comprehensive victory over Juventus at Stamford Bridge.
Winning the group isn’t always a guarantee of an easy last-16 draw, as Chelsea learned last season when they came up against Atletico Madrid, but things look different this season thanks to the progress of the other Premier League sides.
With both Manchester clubs topping their groups, along with Liverpool, Chelsea knew second place meant a 50% chance of meeting one of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, with a 20-goal Ajax side another option.
Werner’s late goal could have been huge, but the Zenit equaliser means the Blues face a nervous wait for the knockout draw.