This wasn’t exactly how Thomas Tuchel would have imagined his 100th match as Chelsea manager. In the competition where he found such success just 17 months ago in the final against Manchester City, the German was powerless to stop Dinamo Zagreb recording a famous victory courtesy of Miroslav Orsic’s well-taken goal.
With their owner Todd Boehly watching on from the stands, Chelsea were outclassed in almost every department as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang endured a debut to forget after his deadline-day move from Barcelona, mustering a grand total of no shots on target from his 59 minutes on the pitch. It wasn’t much better for Tuchel, who was uncharacteristically haphazard with his tactics throughout and even deployed Raheem Sterling in central midfield for a large part of the second half. For the first time since he succeeded Frank Lampard, Chelsea have lost three consecutive away games and their problems are mounting.
Tuchel’s response to the fortunate victory over West Ham on Saturday was to hand Kepa Arrizabalaga his first appearance of the season in place of Édouard Mendy, while César Azpilicueta, Ben Chilwell, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz were all restored to the starting line-up. It had been nearly five years since Aubameyang’s last appearance in this competition while he was still at Borussia Dortmund, with his new manager saying the 33-year-old was “hungry to play for us” despite suffering a broken jaw at the end of last month in Barcelona. Sporting a black facemask that was made-to-measure by a specialist company in Milan, Aubameyang surprisingly passed up his first opportunity to shoot in the seventh minute after being played in by Kai Havertz and then failed to make the most of a Havertz cross that flashed across the face of goal moments later.
But despite their home being badly damaged by an earthquake in March 2020 that meant the attendance was restricted to just 22,000 here, Dinamo’s supporters were soon given an opportunity to find their voices. Chelsea’s high defensive line deep in the opposition’s half was always going to be a risky approach and it was Bruno Petkovic’s clever header from a Robert Ljubicic pass that presented Orsic with clear open space. Wesley Fofana had ground to make up but the way that the Croatia forward – who scored a hat-trick against Tottenham to knock them out of the Europa League in 2021 and also against West Ham last season – outmuscled and then sped away from the £70m signing from Leicester will have concerned Tuchel. It could have got even better for Dinamo had Arijan Ademi’s volley from outside the box not been parried away to safety by Arrizabalaga just past the half-hour mark.
The hosts have won the Croatian title for the past five seasons and are no strangers to protecting a lead, with Chelsea struggling to create a clear-cut opening against an organised defence. Tuchel headed slowly towards the tunnel at the break, clearly contemplating where it was all going wrong.
The German manager was back in position five minutes before the start of the second half having introduced Hakim Ziyech for Azpilicueta and switching to a back four. Despite Sterling dropping back into an unfamiliar central midfield role, Chelsea at least looked more threatening and Aubameyang’s smart finish from Chilwell’s cross was correctly ruled out for offside.
A spectacular save from Arrizabalaga to push Stefan Ristovski’s brilliant effort from distance on to the crossbar prompted a double change from Tuchel, with Jorginho replacing Mateo Kovacic after a testing reunion against his former club and Armando Broja ending a frustrating evening for Aubameyang. Try as they might, however, Chelsea could not find their rhythm as the hosts seemed to grow in confidence as they got closer to the final whistle.
Yet another change in formation with 20 minutes remaining saw a reluctant Ziyech trudge over after being told to fill in at left wing-back by an increasingly angry Tuchel, with referee Istvan Kovacs showing the Chelsea manager and his assistant Zsolt Löw yellow cards after overdoing their protests on the touchline.
Had it not been for a crucial intervention by Ljubicic, Havertz could well have snatched a draw with a header from Mount’s cross, before Reece James smacked the post late on and Mount finally called Dinamo goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic into action. But it would have been far more than Chelsea and Tuchel deserved.