Chelsea 2 Zagreb 1: Sterling gets first goal since September and Denis Zakaria was eventually permitted to make his debut

GRAHAM POTTER resorted to his ultimate Z-lister to cap off the Champions League group stage.

Denis Zakaria was eventually permitted to make his debut, scoring the game-winning goal to seal Chelsea’s comeback.
The Swiss midfielder was acquired on loan from Juventus on deadline day last summer and has since sat on his hands.

But, with Chelsea already secured of first place in the Champions League, the forgotten man of Stamford Bridge earned a long-awaited call up in last night’s final group game.

It would be a stretch to say Zakaria had a game-winning effort. But, after half an hour, he came up big to beat stubborn Zagreb with a scuffed goal.

The shot took a slight deflection off a defender on the way over the line but Chelsea boss Graham Potter won’t care.

And it was evident that the goal meant a lot to him, as he was surrounded by teammates who tousled his hair.

When Zakaria went off with 19 minutes remaining, fans in the Stamford Bridge West Stand gave him a standing ovation, mindful of how angry the player must have been in recent weeks.

With the World Cup approaching, every game is valuable to players right now, and Zakaria contributed to his team’s victory last night.

Potter chose a solid starting XI with the exception of forgotten man Zakaria for a game with nothing to play for except pride and rebuilding confidence.

Clearly last night’s game was an exercise in running Saturday’s 4-1 pummelling at Brighton out of the system and yet another experiment with the formation from the new Tinkerman.

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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 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. 

Perhaps it’s the embarrassment of riches that he finds perplexing. Like a pampered child on Christmas Day who can’t decide which pricey item to open first.

At the very least, he has a notion of where to place Sterling.

The choice to use a rabbit-like winger capable of twisting and turning opponents inside out as a wingback was the most obvious of recent flaws in the formation playbook.

Sterling was instantly more successful when paired with Aubameyang. Prior to his equalizer on 18 minutes, he latched onto a probing cross from Kai Havertz and fired wide from inside the area.

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.

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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.

However, there was still work to be done in slipping past two players and putting the ball into the bottom right hand corner of the net.
Aubameyang struck the crossbar after the interval, and Mason Mount’s free kick was deflected. Mendy made amends after surrendering earlier by stopping Josep Misic on the line.

England’s left back appeared in injury time. Ben Chilwell seemed to strain his left hamstring while chasing the ball and had to be assisted off the field at the end.

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