They left it late, but a stoppage-time Olivier Giroud header secured knockout qualification in the Champions League with two games to spare as Chelsea ran out 2-1 winners in Rennes.
Another late goal in Krasnodar meant that Sevilla also confirmed their place in the knockout stages. However, Chelsea will need at least one point in Spain to put themselves in pole position for top spot.
Ahead of the upcoming busy schedule for Frank Lampard’s side, he made four changes to the team that beat Newcastle at the weekend with James, Ziyech and Kante all earning a rest. Azpilicueta, Jorginho and Hudson-Odoi all came into the side alongside Thiago Silva, whilst Kai Havertz made a return to the squad following his absence after testing positive for COVID-19.
It was a fast start from Chelsea and they should have been ahead after just three minutes as Timo Werner failed to convert from a Hudson-Odoi cross, blazing it well over the bar from just a couple of yards out. It was a shocking miss and one that Werner would’ve netted home on another night.
The Blues weren’t left to rue that missed opportunity for long as just after the 22-minute mark, Mason Mount unleashed a sublime 40-yard pass to find an advancing Hudson-Odoi in acres of space. Bearing down on goal, the winger took two top class touches before slotting the ball past the keeper to put us one up. It was a well deserved goal for Hudson-Odoi, who finally got a chance to play from the start, with the youngster making a very bright impression right from the off.
Mason Mount almost made it two shortly after as he drew a fine save from Rennes’ keeper Gomis. This was as good as it got for the visitors though, as the home side began to take control of the match. A couple of misplaced passes towards the end of the first half from Chilwell in particular meant the Blues could count themselves lucky to go into the break with the narrow lead intact.
After a very poor end to the first half, Lampard was sure to rip into the squad and he sent them out early in a signal of intent. The first few minutes of the second half mirrored that of the first, with Timo Werner unlucky not to find himself on the scoresheet after a marginal offside ruled his header out.
The half then developed into a similar pattern to the end of the first, as Rennes enjoyed long spells of possession, becoming an increasing threat. Lampard’s men struggled to get a foothold in the game as Mendy was called into a few saves against his former club, including an impressive double save following a corner. It was arguably his busiest game in a Chelsea shirt so far.
Lampard made some substitutions to freshen things up and it speaks volumes for how much the squad has improved in quality and depth as he was able to bring on Kante, Giroud, Ziyech and Havertz, a scary sight for most teams in world football.
Chelsea had dealt pretty well with plenty of corners and set pieces throughout the game but the defence was finally breached in the 85th minute as Guirassy found himself free in between the two center halves to head home the equaliser. There was nothing that Mendy could do as Chelsea conceded their first of the Champions League campaign, but from a defensive viewpoint it was a rather poor goal to concede.
With the game heading for a draw, it looked destined to be a disappointing night for Frank Lampard for it appeared that missed chances in front of goal would come back and haunt the Blues.
However, a minute into stoppage time, Kante won the ball high up the pitch before Ziyech found Werner in the box. The German really should have have put it away but substitue Olivier Giroud spared his blushes with a brilliant header on the rebound into the roof of the net to seal the three points.
Giroud’s late winner showed he still has plenty to offer the team, in a week where his future has been a focal point of discussion. Whilst it looks likely he will leave in January with the Euros looming next summer, there is still plenty of time to convince him to stay as he remains an important member of the squad. Lampard certainly wants him to stay, but whether he will get the opportunities he desires still remains to be seen.
Overall, it was a an underwhelming display from a side that has been nothing short of outstanding in recent weeks, but Lampard would’ve been delighted to ‘win ugly’. The shift in mentality is clear to see as last season we would’ve drawn that game or even lost it. Of course, the massive step-up in the quality of players is a big factor, but the entire team seems to have also developed a togetherness which allows them to fight until the end.
Fatigue looked like an issue – the energy levels we saw in this game were not what we have been used to in recent weeks. Werner and Chilwell fell well below the high standards that they’ve set for themselves. Looking at the bright side. there are four days before Chelsea play next, so there is plenty of time for the squad to recuperate for what will be a hugely important game against Tottenham.
Man of the Match – Mason Mount
Édouard Mendy made some excellent saves and staked a big claim for Man of the Match, but in the midfield, Mason Mount stood out as the star player. Having been bombarded with questions regarding his handling of the midfielder, Lampard defended Mount, saying: “He presses well as any midfielder I’ve worked with”, a bold claim but one which showcases the high regard in which he is held. Starting the season on the wing, it was obvious that wasn’t the position for him. He was on the end of plenty of criticism, perhaps a bit harsh at times, but he kept his head down and carried on, and since being pushed back into his natural number eight position, he’s been one of our top performers. The assist for Hudson-Odoi was glorious and Mount’s passing is a trait which seems to go under the radar. His match stats were impressive, with him ranking highly in most areas. He’s quickly becoming an integral part of the team in the 4-3-3 formation and at the moment, though he isn’t as good as indispensable, it is very difficult to displace him.