Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said Romelu Lukaku’s talent for scoring decisive goals is what the Blues lacked despite winning the Champions League last season.
Lukaku brought to life an otherwise flat performance with the sole aim of beating Zenit St Petersburg 1-0 on Tuesday to take the Blues’ defense of their European crown to a winning start.
The Belgian striker now has four goals in as many games since returning to the club last month for a club record £97 million ($134 million).
And his predatory instincts were taped over the cracks of a disappointing display of Tuchel’s men 21 minutes before time.
“He was the type of guy we missed,” Tuchel said. “It’s super hard and super important. You don’t find many strikers of that quality.
“The guys who are there to score regularly for their teams are so important because one goal changes the whole momentum of the game.
“The performance for Romelu was not easy. We did not create many chances for him, but he does not lose confidence and faith. That is why he is here and why he is a world-class striker.”
Tuchel urged his players not to rest on their laurels after their surprise run to become European champions last season.
The glory of their win over Manchester City in Porto was hard to shake as the German, Edouard Mendy and Jorginho took home awards as UEFA coach, goalkeeper and player of the year respectively before kick-off on the pitch.
However, Chelsea didn’t look like the best team in Europe as they went out of their way to create chances against the Russian champions.
“There are many reasons why we may not be at the highest level at the moment,” added Tuchel, referring to a lack of pre-season preparation for many of his stars involved in Euro 2020 and the Copa America.
“I’m happy with how we’re playing because I think we’re very competitive and we know how to deal with difficulties during matches.”
A remarkable run of 23 clean sheets in 36 games under Tuchel has been the foundation of Chelsea’s success since he took the lead in January and was once again needed to clear three points.
The first half came and went without the home side getting a shot at goal.
Lukaku demonstrated his blend of speed, power and precision in front of goal, scoring his first Stamford Bridge goals for Chelsea against Villa last weekend.
Zenit had kept the former Inter Milan striker quiet for nearly 70 minutes, but all he needed was a teasing cross from Cesar Azpilicueta to win the Champions League for his new club by planting a header past Stanislav Kritsyuk.
Zenit boss Sergei Semak threw on Artem Dzyuba’s towering presence in search of an equalizer and it almost paid off.
But even the 1.97m tall Russian international couldn’t stretch ten minutes before the end to make clean enough contact on Sardar Azmoun’s cross and the ball dribbled wide.