Olivier Giroud had the final word on home soil as he marched on to the pitch as a late substitute and provided the winning header in the dying moments of this game. Alongside Sevilla’s 2-1 win over Krasnodar it means Chelsea and the Spanish side have qualified from Group E for the last 16 and will effectively contest top spot in Seville next week.
Chelsea arrived at Roazhon Park on a five-match winning streak which included their 3-0 win over a 10-man Rennes at Stamford Bridge and it was immediately reflected in the ease and fluidity with which they moved the ball, suffocating the home team in the final third.
Callum Hudson-Odoi had started only four times this season, two of them in the Carabao Cup, and he made it clear he wanted more. It was his vision that provided one of the first clear opportunities as he glided through the Rennes lines, finding Timo Werner with a cross after a quick combination with César Azpilicueta only for the German striker to sky wildly over the bar from six yards.
While Werner struggled after his miss, Hudson-Odoi’s energy on the right was contagious. His industry was rewarded after half an hour as Mason Mount won the ball deep in Chelsea’s half before finding Hudson-Odoi with an exquisite lofted pass. Hudson-Odoi sauntered through and coolly rolled a low finish into the net.
Still, this was a different game from Chelsea’s home fixture, in which Rennes had conceded a penalty after 10 minutes and then Dalbert was harshly sent off for a handball after giving away a second penalty. The French side were courageous in London even after falling two goals behind. Here, after riding out another clear chance from Mount, they immediately bounced back and spent the second half on the front foot.
Although all eyes were on the return of Eduardo Camavinga, it was another 18-year-old Rennes player, Belgium’s Jérémy Doku, who was a threat throughout. The magic of Chelsea’s first half-hour gone, Rennes imposed themselves on the game as Chelsea struggled to break down the French team’s compact defence.
The final 15 minutes proved the most chaotic. Édouard Mendy, back in Rennes for the first time since moving to Chelsea, made a quick series of saves. After denying Serhou Guirassy who was clear on goal, Mendy pulled off a spectacular double save from the subsequent corner, keeping out Gerzino Nyamsi’s powerful header. Eventually the pressure told as Guirassy leapt to head home Benjamin Bourigeaud’s corner.
All positivity could have been sucked out of the Chelsea team after failing to take their early chances but the substitutes took the final minutes in their hands and navigated a last-minute escape. Hakim Ziyech carried the ball and fed it to Werner, whose strike was saved by the Rennes goalkeeper, Alfred Gomis. As the ball flew into the sky and seemed to hang there for an eternity, Giroud met it with his forehead and buried his finish to give Chelsea a sixth win in a row.
“I think everybody feels from the outside what a great professional [Giroud] is and how highly regarded he is by his teammates and by myself,” said the Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard. “And for him to get a goal, you’ve seen the reaction of his teammates, he’s so professional in how he trains and looks after himself that age isn’t even a factor.”
Throughout his career, Giroud has so often had a knack for timing. Both at Arsenal and Chelsea, the 34-year-old’s resilience has allowed him to recover from setbacks and make his presence and ability clear whenever he has fallen out of favour or found himself on the bench for long periods.
In this case, plenty of the discussion has centred around his future after Didier Deschamps’ insistence that Giroud would “have to find another situation than this one” to earn a spot in France’s Euro 2020 squad. With his future unknown, he will evidently attempt to change his situation with his performances on the pitch.
“Even though he doesn’t play all the time,” said Lampard, “I hope and I think he knows that I’m happy with him and how much I rely on him.”