Chelsea defence falters, Edin Dzeko stars as Blues and Roma share six-goal thriller
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea and Roma played to a 3-3 draw in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday.
1. Chelsea and Roma share six-goal thriller
Champions League group games can be rather staid affairs, the inconsequentiality of many rendering them box-ticking exercises. That was quite emphatically not the case at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, when Chelsea and Roma drew a pulsating game 3-3 in which both teams held the lead and threw it away.
Chelsea were 2-0 up through David Luiz and Eden Hazard, but Roma stormed back to go ahead thanks to the former Manchester City pair, Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Dzeko. The draw, combined with the surprising 0-0 stalemate earlier in the evening between Atletico Madrid and Qarabag, means Group C is still wide open.
Alvaro Morata returned to Chelsea's starting lineup, meaning manager Antonio Conte could avoid picking Michy Batshuayi up front while bolstering the midfield, in the absence of N'Golo Kante, by shifting David Luiz further upfield and bringing Andreas Christensen into defence.
And it was the Brazilian who gave Chelsea the lead in the 11th minute. The ball broke to Luiz around 30 yards from goal, he tried to play in Morata, the pass was cut out but simply served as an unintentional one-two. Luiz had a run-up to guide a powerful effort into the bottom corner of the net, beating his compatriot Alisson to put Chelsea ahead.
Despite the early goal, it was Roma who controlled most of the play, attacking with pace and purpose but the accuracy of their finishing meant what chances they had were easily dealt with by Thibaut Courtois.
Their profligacy was punished on 37 minutes. Morata, to that point playing like a man slightly unsure of his fitness (unsurprising considering his recent hamstring problem), attacked the Roma box from the left, his shot deflected off Federico Fazio and looped directly into the path of Hazard, who hit home his first goal of the season on the half-volley.
But almost instantly Roma got back into the game. Kolarov beat Davide Zappacosta, broke into the area and lashed a shot at goal. It looked like another effort straight at the goalkeeper, but a deflection off Christensen took it past the Chelsea keeper and high into the net. It was the least Roma deserved, and they were close to levelling seconds later when Gerson was muscled out of a chance at the back post.
The theme continued in the second half. Roma showed much more attacking purpose even though Chelsea created some decent chances. And that purpose was rewarded just after the hour mark with a stunning equaliser. Fazio clipped a long pass over the top of the Chelsea defence and Dzeko thundered a sensational first-time volley above Courtois and into the net.
Minutes later Roma were in the lead. Kolarov fizzed a free kick over from the left, Dzeko ghosted between two defenders and glanced a header into the net. The away end, already a rolling sea of limbs, exploded.
But a quite brilliant game took another twist when substitute Pedro crossed from the right and Hazard, not typically a colossus in the air, glanced a superb header into the far corner. The Belgian's influence has not been as it has been thus far this season, but perhaps these two goals are a sign that he can rediscover his best form.
Chelsea brought on Willian to offer some more direct running and look for a winner, but ultimately couldn't find one. A draw was ultimately fair for two teams that battered each other for 90 minutes.
2. Luiz plugs Kante void, opens up another
One of the key concerns of Chelsea's season so far has been the injury to N'Golo Kante. The Frenchman makes Conte's 3-4-3 formation possible because of the ground he covers and the smartness of his passing, and while Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko are both fine players, they can't do what Kante does. In fact, nobody else can.
Conte's solution to that problem in this game was to move David Luiz into midfield, and it worked almost instantly. The Brazilian's forceful run and finish gave Chelsea the lead, and he stamped his influence on the game from the early stages, chasing around everywhere as if he was trying to do all of Kante's work himself. It's easy to get nervous when Luiz does that as you suspect a rash tackle is only a few moments away, but if that can be controlled then he's probably the best option available to Conte when Kante isn't present.
The problem is that taking Luiz out of defence presents its own issues. Few would say he is the second coming of Franco Baresi, but Luiz's defensive capabilities are very underrated. Despite his slightly erratic image, he brings a degree of calm to Chelsea's back three and is the perfect man to bring the ball forward from that backline.
Perhaps it would have made no difference with him there, but Chelsea's defence looked extremely vulnerable to Roma's attacks throughout. The first goal was a deflection but Kolarov was allowed space in the box, the second a piece of brilliance from Dzeko but for the third the Roma No .9 was allowed a free header on the edge of the six-yard box. The problem with having a versatile player like Luiz is that plugging one hole can open up another: Conte will hope that the injury he suffered in the first half and was a factor in his 57th-minute substitution is just a minor one.
3. Dzeko's resurgence continues
When Edin Dzeko moved to Roma a little over two years ago, not too many at Manchester City cried tears of loss. His first season in Italy didn't do much to persuade anyone that this was a brilliant transfer either. But over the last year Dzeko has become one of the most deadly strikers in Europe.
He found the net a whopping 39 times in all competitions last season, breaking a club record held by the saintly Francesco Totti. He benefitted from a Roma side built around him, constructed entirely to suit his needs and while he was still capable of missing the occasional sitter, his rehabilitation was complete.
Even with the change of manager in the summer and the loss of a key supplier in Mohamed Salah, Dzeko has continued where he left off this season. He has seven goals in seven Serie A games and his brace against Chelsea -his first goals against the Blues -- means he's scoring at a neat goal a game ratio in all competitions.
It's the variety of goals which is striking: his two on Wednesday were a brilliant volley and a poacher's header, creating space for himself with a smart run and glancing home a header. He may look ineffectual sometimes, but Dzeko has gone from also-ran in Manchester to one of the finest centre-forwards in the world.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.