LONDON — There were more than a few eyebrows raised when Timo Werner gave up a chance to play in the Champions League quarterfinals last season.
The 24-year-old had agreed his £47.6 million move to Chelsea but RB Leipzig still had a last-eight European tie to play, their path to a possible final reduced to just two matches due to the shortened knockout format staged in Lisbon resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Yet Leipzig sporting director Markus Kroesche confirmed Werner turned down the offer to remain part of the Bundesliga side’s squad — despite being ineligible for Chelsea’s own round-of-16 second leg against Bayern Munich — out of a preference to begin acclimatising to a new club and country as early as possible.
Passing up a Champions League quarterfinal is no small gesture but perhaps he was convinced he wouldn’t have to wait long for another opportunity.
Werner bullishly declared on the eve of Wednesday’s game against Rennes that, “We are here to win the Champions League,” and while it is too early to consider the Blues serious contenders, a comfortable 3-0 win against Stade Rennes was a significant step forward in Group E with the German striker leading from the front. Well, more precisely, from the left, as he reprised his role off the flank against Burnley to allow Tammy Abraham to play through the middle.
It did not blunt his effectiveness. In fact, Werner’s versatility gives Chelsea precisely the sort of unpredictability manager Frank Lampard hoped to engender with the bulk of the club’s £220m summer spending spree.
Equally, he wants clinical finishing and a ruthless mentality. Werner’s brace came from the penalty spot — shooting to the goalkeeper’s right both times, low with the first, high with the second, but both equally emphatic — and they were Chelsea’s only two shots on target in the first half.
Werner won the first spot kick with the kind of quick, incisive play that is fast becoming a trademark. He was simply too quick for Dalbert, who clipped his ankle as he turned in the box with 10 minutes played, giving Chelsea the chance to wrestle early control of the match in a manner they never looked like relinquishing. It is the fourth time he has been fouled for a penalty in 11 appearances.
The second penalty was harsh, and the subsequent second yellow card harder still to take. Following a lengthy VAR review as German referee Felix Zwayer consulted the touchline monitor, Dalbert was adjudged to have handled in the box with his arm in an unnatural position after hitting his leg. There were no fans at Stamford Bridge but the solitary member of Rennes’ travelling party who booed the officials as they walked off at half-time spoke for the rest of the French contingent.
This was a not solely a night to showcase the new signings, however, as two of Chelsea’s younger players combined to provide a reminder of the contribution they made last season: five minutes into the second half, Reece James scampered down the right and whipped in a superb low cross that Abraham met with a crisp first-time finish at the near post.
Perhaps the only surprise of the evening was that Werner, presumably hat-trick mining, lasted the full 90 minutes, especially given Rennes offered little threat aside from forcing their former goalkeeper Edouard Mendy into a fine late save as Clement Grenier shot low. Mendy, a £20m summer acquisition from Rennes, extended his personal run to six consecutive clean sheets. This was Chelsea’s fifth in a row.
Werner’s successful second conversion took his tally to seven goals and three assists from 11 games. It was perhaps another sign of his growing influence that he assumed penalty-taking duties from Jorginho after the Italy international missed his previous two spot kicks against Liverpool and Krasnador.
Strikers are the most obsessed by numbers and here are two more impressive figures to underline Wener’s pedigree at this level: first, he has been directly involved in 12 goals in his past 14 Champions League matches (nine goals and three assists), and second, he has now scored 41 goals in 56 appearances across all competitions since the start of last season. He is only the fifth player from Europe’s top five leagues to surpass 40 goals after Robert Lewandowski, Ciro Immobile, Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku.
Werner is quickly establishing himself as a major force. More nights like this and Chelsea will feel the same.