Chelsea kicks off its UEFA Champions League defense on Tuesday, welcoming Zenit St. Petersburg to Stamford Bridge in what will officially make the Blues the team to beat in the whole competition. Chelsea had the best offensive and defensive underlying numbers of the 2020/21 Champions League campaign.
The Blues virtually have all players available to them, so who does Thomas Tuchel select to begin his side’s Champions League defense?
Chelsea will start their Champions League defence without American winger Christian Pulisic, while there remain doubts over influential midfielder N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman was forced off midway through last month’s game at Liverpool with an ankle injury and has yet to return, while Pulisic is expected to stay sidelined for a few more days with an ankle knock of his own.
Defensive lynchpin Thiago Silva is available, though, after a FIFA-imposed suspension was overturned last week, and he could start in a back three for the home side.
Meanwhile, after a rare rest at the weekend, Jorginho should be joined in midfield by Mateo Kovacic, although new signing Saul Niguez is also a contender despite a difficult debut. Just days after scoring his first league goals at Stamford Bridge, the irrepressible Romelu Lukaku leads from the front.
Long linked with a move to England, Zenit’s Sardar Azmoun – with 17 goals, top scorer in the 2019-20 Russian Premier League – will start in a probable front two for the visitors. After upping his tally to 19 last term, the Iran international ended the campaign just one goal shy of his imposing strike partner Artem Dzyuba – recently dropped by Russia.
Sergei Semak’s side will travel without midfielder Magomed Ozdoyev, who injured knee ligaments eight minutes into their opening league fixture in late July and has not featured since. There are also concerns about the fitness of centre-back Dmitri Chistyakov, whose ankle injury is set to keep him out too.
Like Thiago Silva, former Barcelona winger Malcom and his teammate Claudinho were initially ruled out of the game after the Brazilian FA requested FIFA to impose bans on those who failed to report for international duty. However, on Friday evening they were given the all-clear and should now start.
Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Mendy; Christensen, Silva, Rudiger; Azpilicueta, Kovacic, Jorginho, Alonso; Havertz, Lukaku, Mount
Zenit St Petersburg possible starting lineup:
Kritsyuk; Sutormin, Lovren, Rakitskiy, Santos; Erokhin, Kuzyaev, Claudinho, Malcom; Dzyuba, Azmoun