Champions League hits and misses: Chelsea must do things hard way again as understudies fall short

Champions League holders Chelsea are undone by spectacular equaliser at the death from Zenit St Petersburg; Plus: Mason Greenwood the unsurprising standout in Ralf Rangnick's experiment.

Chelsea understudies fail Zenit test

Thomas Tuchel flexed his muscles with his substitutions
Image: Thomas Tuchel flexed his muscles with his substitutions

Champions League holders Chelsea are having to do things the hard way in the new year again. In conceding a stoppage-time equaliser in a pulsating 3-3 draw at Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday, Thomas Tuchel's side finished runners-up in Group H.

It means the Blues have finished second in their Champions League group in three of their last four campaigns in the competition, having won their group in six of their previous seven participations.

Chelsea looked business-like after Timo Werner broke the deadlock inside just 90 seconds in Russia but the seven changes which Tuchel made from the side that lost 3-2 at West Ham eventually affected Chelsea's rhythm.

Kepa Arrizabalaga and Werner can both reflect on good individual performances but after Chelsea's recent domestic wobble, failure to see off a Zenit St Petersburg side who themselves made plenty of changes adds to the lingering concern this could be more than a blip.

Magomed Ozdoev celebrates his 94th-minute screamer
Image: Magomed Ozdoev celebrates his 94th-minute screamer

Saul Niguez was used as a left wing-back while Reece James was also experimented with in an unfamiliar midfield role but it was the lack of defensive cohesion between Malang Sarr, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta from which Zenit drew plenty of confidence.

Claudinho and Sardar Azmoun were constant threats and deserved their goals which turned the game on its head within four minutes of the first half and while Chelsea showed character to drag themselves back in front, this was a far-from-convincing display.

Also See:

"Now is not the time to talk about individual performances," Tuchel said. We've conceded six goals in last two games. Nobody should be happy with today or with the West Ham game."

It was a spectacular late equaliser, but a win would still have left the German admitting his side had got out of jail.

The draw that Zenit's efforts fully merited merely highlights the need for Chelsea to have more time on the training ground. Time Tuchel knows he will scarcely be afforded in the coming month.
Ben Grounds

Greenwood stands out in Rangnick experiment

Mason Greenwood scored an acrobatic scissor-kick against Young Boys
Image: Mason Greenwood scored an acrobatic scissor-kick against Young Boys

An entirely new Manchester United XI comprised of a mix of experience, fringe players desperate for minutes, and a sprinkling of youngsters.

The result of this mash-up was an inconsistent performance.

This was a fact-finding mission for Ralf Rangnick in a match where the result didn't necessarily matter, but the most impressive performer won't come as a surprise. Mason Greenwood is special - the technique he showed for the opener was stunning - and he, more than anyone on the pitch, staked a claim for more minutes under Rangnick.

This was his first start since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer left the club, and the 20-year-old will hope his inclusion on Wednesday is a sign of things to come in more playing time, and not that he is seen by the German as one of many fringe players at Old Trafford. It doesn't take a genius to work out that Cristiano Ronaldo's arrival at the club has impacted his opportunities.

Rangnick showed he has a stake in the future of Manchester United with a nod to a next generation of players - Charlie Savage and Zidane Iqbal were given debuts, while Anthony Elanga and Amad Diallo got starts, but for those looking for Premier League minutes in the coming weeks, it was a mixed evening.

Eric Bailly was solid, both Jesse Lingard and Donny van de Beek were hit and miss, and Aaron Wan-Bissaka looked erratic, ending the game with a worrying-looking wrist injury. Regardless of the prognosis, he has a lot to do to convince Rangnick of a starting place.
Gerard Brand

Liverpool leave lasting Champions League mark

Divock Origi celebrates with team-mates after putting Liverpool 2-1 up in Milan
Image: Divock Origi celebrates with team-mates after putting Liverpool 2-1 up in Milan

If you offered Jurgen Klopp a guaranteed clean bill of health, together with another encouraging night of education for some of Liverpool's academy prospects in their final Champions League group-stage match at AC Milan, he would probably have taken it.

But when your team is performing as well as Klopp's is at this moment in time, why on earth would he need to negotiate?

Liverpool had already secured passage to the Champions League knockout phase by virtue of winning their opening five group-stage matches. A sixth would have been a welcome bonus, of course, but no sleep would have been lost had Milan brought that run to an end.

For Milan, their very existence in Europe this season hinged on events at the San Siro but not even that tangible target was enough to halt this insatiable Liverpool team who, despite making eight changes, wrote their name into the European history books - again.

In a perfect piece of symmetry, Mohamed Salah and Divock Origi, whose goals overcame Tottenham to secure a sixth European crown in 2019, found the net at the San Siro as Liverpool became the first English side to win all six of their group-stage matches.

It will, of course, all count for nothing if Liverpool don't get their hands on a seventh European title in May. But their sensational start to this season's campaign begs a pertinent question: if not Liverpool, then who?
Jack Wilkinson

Could clean sheets hamper further City progress?

Andre Silva celebrates after doubling RB Leipzig's lead against Man City
Image: Andre Silva celebrates after doubling RB Leipzig's lead against Man City

It was not a happy trip to Germany for Manchester City. To start with, they were beaten 2-1 by RB Leipzig, who are without a manager since Jesse Marsch's departure at the weekend.

But they also picked up an unwanted record - not keeping a clean sheet in any of their group games this season. Overall, they have failed to keep a clean sheet in ten of their last 11 Champions League outings.

On Tuesday, Pep Guardiola changed three of his back four. John Stones and Nathan Ake were in the centre of defence, with Oleksandr Zinchenko also coming in and Kyle Walker keeping his place. The Ukrainian was the only one to escape unscathed - Stones was at fault for the second goal, Walker was sent off and Ake looks to have picked up a back injury.

Zack Steffan also replaced Ederson in goal and City actually had him to thank for keeping RB Leipzig from running away with the game in the first half. He made a string of superb saves, including a stunning stop from close range to deny Silva.

Of course, over the course of the group campaign, there are others who come under the spotlight. Man City have conceded 2+ goals in three different group stage games for the first time since the 2014/15 season.

But a stoic Guardiola was unbothered by the lack of clean sheets during his post-match press conference, saying: "February is February."

And he's right. Around the same time last year, some were questioning City's form and even writing them off for any titles pushes. They went on to win the Premier League and reach the Champions League final, broke the record for most consecutive wins by a top-flight English team (21) and equalled a club record of going 28 games unbeaten, both across all competitions.

In the Premier League too, they have kept a joint-league high eight clean sheets from 15 games so far. You would expect them to be up there come the end of the season too.

For now, a lack of clean sheets in Europe will not even be a speck on Guardiola's radar. But you can be sure it will be in the back of his mind in six weeks' time as he aims for another Champions League final this time around.
Charlotte Marsh

Win £250,000 with Super 6!

Win £250,000 with Super 6!

Another Saturday, another chance to win £250,000 with Super 6. Play for free, entries by 3pm.

Around Sky