Chelsea 2 Zagreb 1: Sterling gets first goal since September in big England boost as Potter forgets Brighton nightmare
GRAHAM POTTER turned to his ultimate Z-lister to end the Champions League group stage on a high note.
Denis Zakaria was finally allowed out on pitch for a memorable debut in which he scored the winner to clinch Chelsea’s comeback.
The Switzerland midfielder was signed on loan from Juventus on deadline day in the summer and has sat on his hands ever since.
But in last night’s final Champions League group game and with Chelsea already assured of top spot, the forgotten man of Stamford Bridge received a long-awaited call up.
It would be stretching a point to claim Zakaria turned in a matchwinning performance. But he popped up when needed to see off stubborn Zagreb with a scuffed goal after half an hour.
The shot took a slight deflection off a defender on the way over the line but Zakaria Chelsea boss Graham Potter won’t care.
And it was the clear the goal meant a lot as he was mobbed by team-mates who ruffled his hair.
When he hobbled off with 19 minutes to go, Zakaria was treated to a standing ovation from fans in the Stamford Bridge West Stand, acutely aware of how frustrated the player must have been in recent weeks.
With a World Cup around the corner, any game time is precious to players now and Zakaria played his part in his side’s win last night.
For a game with nothing to play for except pride and restoring confidence Potter went for it with his line up: A strong starting X1 with the exception of forgotten man Zakaria.
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Clearly last night’s game was an exercise in running Saturday’s 4-2 pummelling at Brighton out of the system and yet another experiment with the formation from the new Tinkerman.
A back four and a front two comprising Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, sandwiching a midfield diamond.
And for a time it looked as if this latest reworking of the tactics was going to backfire like it did at the Amex Stadium at the weekend.
Dinamo Zagreb took a shock lead in the eighth minute. The third time in the last four games that Chelsea have gone behind.
A right wing cross from right back Sadegh Moharrami dipped at the far post and cannoned back across the box off the back of Cesar Azpilicueta’s head.
Zagreb striker Bruno Petkovic was in the clear to power home a header from six yards.
Returning keeper Edouard Mendy had no hope of keeping it out and the defence which shipped four goals four days previously gifted the opposition another goal.
Potter has never had such a quantity of quality players at his disposal in his managerial career.
Maybe it is the embarrassment of riches that he finds confusing? Like a spoilt kid on Christmas Day who doesn’t know which expensive present to play with first.
At least he is sort of getting the idea of where to put Sterling.
The decision to employ a rabbit-like winger who can twist and turn opponents inside out as a wingback proved the most glaring of recent glitches in the formation playbook.
Partnering Aubameyang, Sterling was instantly more effective. Even before his equaliser on 18 minutes he latched onto a probing cross from Aubameyang and lashed a shot wide from inside the box.
Sterling’s form for Chelsea lately has been a big talking point. With England boss Gareth Southgate on a nationwide tour to check up on his stars ahead of this month’s World Cup, the lack of goals for one of our most explosive and dynamic players has been a concern.
His leveller was his first goal since Potter’s first game as manager on September 14 – ten matches ago now. That’s some lean streak in the build up to his fifth major international tournament.
Sticking one away last night, even in a pointless game like this, will boost Sterling’s self-confidence as the run-in to Qatar starts.
The manner in which he took the goal has added gravy to remind Southgate what a quality player he has on his hands.
A piercing through ball by Jorginho from the centre circle found Aubameyang on the run into Zagreb’s box. Chelsea’s main frontman cheekily back-heeled the ball with Sterling following in close formation behind.
But there was still work to be done in shimmying past two defenders, before slotting the ball into the bottom right hand corner of the net.
After the break, Aubameyang hit the crossbar and Mason Mount’s free kick was tipped over. Mendy made up for conceding earlier with a save on the line from Josep Misic.
In injury time, England left back Ben Chilwell appeared to pull his left hamstring chasing the ball and had to be helped off the pitch at the final whistle.
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