Raheem Sterling was restored to Chelsea’s attack and rewarded Graham Potter with a starring role in a 2-1 win over Dinamo Zagreb which saw Ben Chilwell limp off late on.
Chilwell appeared to pull his hamstring chasing a ball in stoppage time and though he got to his feet and played the final seconds of the match, the England defender had to be carried across to the tunnel at the full-time whistle to raise questions over his fitness ahead of the World Cup, which kicks off in less than three weeks.
“You’d have to say [the World Cup is a concern] yes,” said Chelsea boss Graham Potter when asked about his prognosis. “I don’t want to add any more than that, but when a player pulls up like he did and felt it, it’s never positive.”
Sterling’s role in Chelsea’s 4-1 defeat at Brighton on Saturday was called into question after Potter started him at wing-back, but back in his natural position he scored his first goal for the club since mid-September to cancel out Bruno Petkovic’s early opener – and he could have had a first half hat-trick but missed two other chances.
With Chelsea only playing for pride, but needing to shake off the memory of that hammering on the south coast, they could not have got off to a worse start when Cesar Azpilicueta’s miscued header teed up Petkovic to stoop and nod home after seven minutes.
Dinamo were playing for their European hopes – needing a win and favourable results elsewhere to qualify for the Europa League play-off round – but were pegged back only 11 minutes later, when Sterling latched onto Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s backheel and bent an equaliser inside the far post.
On the half-hour mark, Chelsea put themselves ahead as a low ball from the right found debutant Denis Zakaria, who marked his first appearance since joining the club two months ago with what would prove to be the winner, a smart near-post strike which crept inside the near post.
Aubameyang hit the bar after half-time as Chelsea pushed for a cushion while Josip Sutalo was kept out by Edouard Mendy at full stretch, but a dead rubber for the hosts ended with a reassuring victory to end their group-stage on a high ahead of Monday’s last-16 draw.
Chelsea: Mendy (7), Azpilicueta (5), Koulibaly (6), Chalobah (7), Chilwell (7), Zakaria (7), Jorginho (6), Mount (7), Sterling (8), Havertz (7), Aubameyang (7).
Subs: Broja (6), Gallagher (7), Silva (7), Loftus-Cheek (6), Pulisic (n/a).
Dinamo Zagreb: Livakovic (6), Ristovski (6), Sutalo (7), Peric (6), Misic (6), Moharrami (7), Ivanusec (6), Ademi (6), Ljubicic (6), Petkovic (6), Orsic (6).
Subs: Emreli (6), Drmic, Bulat, Spikic (n/a).
Player of the match: Raheem Sterling
How Chelsea signed off from Group E on a high until Chilwell injury
After being forced to change his favoured back three several times in recent games, Potter reverted to a four-man defence for the first time in eight games hoping to provide more balance to the strong side he had picked.
Things could not have got off to a worse start. Chilwell failed to block a cross which Azpilicueta got his head to but could not direct clear, and with Kalidou Koulibaly caught on his heels Petkovic was presented a simple finish to open the scoring.
That changed Dinamo’s gameplan from having to score to battening down the hatches – not that it worked for long.
Sterling could already have scored from a delightful, disguised diagonal into the box from deep from Kai Havertz, but fired over on the volley.
He made amends soon after, meeting Aubameyang’s backheel and riding two challenges before deftly curling home on his left.
The England forward could have had a hat-trick on another day but blazed the most presentable chance of the three well off target.
Instead, debutant Zakaria completed the turnaround on the half-hour when connecting sweetly with a low ball which just beat Sadegh Moharrami’s attempted goal-line clearance.
- Graham Potter made seven changes from the weekend defeat at Brighton, and changed shape to a 4-3-3 to hand Denis Zakaria his debut.
Sutalo could have levelled up within minutes of the restart but was denied by the recalled Mendy from a corner, before Aubameyang rattled the crossbar from 20 yards as the game began to open up.
It could have been three late on as substitute Conor Gallagher was denied from close-range, but appeared to be destined to be a positive night for Chelsea regardless – until Chilwell’s injury put a dampener on the evening’s events, and perhaps his World Cup hopes too.
Potter concerned for Chilwell, but defends Sterling usage
Chelsea manager Graham Potter:
“Ben’s a blow for us on an otherwise positive evening. To see him pull up like that, it’s not a great sight. So fingers crossed when we get it scanned it isn’t too bad. It can be not as severe but we have to cross our fingers at the moment. But clearly, we’re disappointed.
“I spoke to him briefly. He just felt something as he was setting off. He is disappointed and upset.
“We’ve tried to play Raheem as high and wide as we can. I know there is a lot of talk about him being a wing-back, but I played as a wing-back and I can assure you that Raheem has never played as a wing-back! He has never been asked to play and defend in a back five or back four even.
“His responsibility has always been against the full-back. With the back four behind him tonight probably helped, he was a little bit higher and a little bit wider. It was nice for him to score because he has been working hard for the team. As I said before, the team has to function well for the individuals to do well. So I’m really pleased he got his goal today.”
Chelsea have three more games before the World Cup break. They host Arsenal in the Premier League on Sunday; kick-off 12pm. They then travel to Man City in the Carabao Cup, live on Sky Sports; kick-off 8pm.
Chelsea’s final Premier League game before the tournament is on Saturday November 12 when they travel to Newcastle, live on Sky Sports; kick-off 5.30pm.
Dinamo Zagreb will also play three more games ahead of the World Cup, twice in the league and one Croatian Cup fixture next week.