Romelu Lukaku had received suffocating attention from a Zenit St Petersburg central defensive three. Everywhere he turned he felt like a door was slammed in his face and, as that tie entered his home stretch, visitors must have thought they had him and Chelsea under control.
But it only takes a second for Lukaku to free himself. This is why Chelsea broke the bank to re-sign him over the summer and why they were able to get off to a winning start for their Champions League defense.
When the ball has been worked from inside left to inside just for Cesar Azpilicueta, Zenit defender Dmitri Chistyakov seemed to have Lukaku close at hand in the penalty area. But then Azpilicueta crossed over and he didn't. Lukaku had spent the previous 68 minutes waiting, working, hiding. Now he had a great chance and he led it home with ruthless hallmark.
It wasn't exactly thatbecause Zenit had a huge equalizer opportunity when Sander Azmoun came through for substitute Artem Dzyuba only for him to stretch and slice. The concession to chance was surprising because of the stingy way Chelsea had been in the back. But they duly closed the result giving Thomas Tuchel the victory he claimed. It's a long way to the final, which will be played in the Gazprom Arena at Zenit. With Lukaku on board, Chelsea can dream of another triumph.
It was Tuchel 's first night game under the lights of Stamford Bridge in front of the fans and the first time the stadium had been packed for a European game since February last year. So much has happened since then, including Chelsea exploding out of nowhere to reinforcehe won his second Champions League in May, and it's foolish to think that home fans couldn't play any part in it - except when 2,000 were allowed in for the final group stage draw against Krasnodar last December.
The pre-game presentations were a nod to the history the team had made. There were UEFA awards for Tuchel, Jorginho, Edouard Mendy and N 'Golo Kante, but it was about putting a sure foot forward, ensuring that the reigning Premier League champions Russian League can not cause upheaval. Zenit's pedigree in this tournament extends to three appearances in the last 16. The feeling beforehand was that it would be a big step forward for them.
Chelsea know what they are. The champions of Europe. And their support has let everyone know repeatedly. It 's soft and it helps to create an aura. Zenit, however, wasn 't intimidated at first. Well balanced in a 5-4-1 system, they tried to push wide midfielders Malcom and Claudinho upwards.
It 's one thing to have a flicker or two of encouragement and another to create something clear against this Chelsea defense, which combines physicality and pace, not to mention precision positioning.
The home team measured the opening 20 minutes in attractive challenges from Antonio Rudiger and Mateo Kovacic. Reece James also returned to thwart Claudinho at the far post. Later in the half, Zenit defender Yaroslav Rakitskyi curled up directly on Mendy after a corner was broken. Could he have done better?
Chelsea wanted to be patient and Tuchel fought to suppress the frustration he felt for long periods of time in the first half -temps when his team could not connect the last third. Jorginho tried to play through the lines at Zenit, to shake things up, while Kovacic was busy but Chelsea struggled to penetrate. Too often the last action wasn't there. James, for example, beat his man on the right but the low center failed to beat the first defender. Mason Mount missed a few passes and that didn't happen for Hakim Ziyech.
Romelu Lukaku was well prepared, the choices are slim for him before the pause. He couldn't buy a meter from Dmitry Chistyakov after 33 minutes, after Mount won the ball and fed it, and the shot was blocked.
Chelsea had failed to work. goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk, not at all in the first 45 minutes. It had to change. Tuchel's team needed a spark and Rudiger tried to provide them with an assault run of theinside his half in 50 minutes.
As he continued the possibilities multiplied and, when he cut to the Inside on the edge of the box, he made space for the finish only to rip it off and send it wide. Moments earlier, Ziyech had shot too close to Kritsyuk. He also took a heavy touch when he was well placed as James hit the side net.
It was better for Chelsea; the greater intensity. Ditto for the intention. Zenit were pushed back, although they felt they still had a punching chance on the clock. There was a strong inspiration inside the stadium when Claudinho fired Sardar Azmoun. Rudiger returned to the tackle. Again. The bond strained and Wendel shot Mendy but it would be Lukaku who struck the decisive blow.