Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic made light of Romelu Lukaku’s omission to spearhead Chelsea’s 2-0 Champions League win over Lille.
Germany forward Havertz nodded in Hakim Ziyech’s fizzing corner, before Pulisic slotted home from N’Golo Kante’s threaded pass in a dominant last-16 first-leg victory.
Havertz impressed in the false nine role as £98million club-record signing Lukaku watched on from the bench, with USA speedster Pulisic an equally effective supporting act.
Blues boss Thomas Tuchel vowed to protect Belgium hitman Lukaku amid continued struggles for form and fluency, in the wake of Saturday’s off-kilter showing at Crystal Palace.
Tuchel insisted Lukaku was on the bench at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday due to fatigue, but the 28-year-old’s Premier League record-low seven touches in the 1-0 win at Palace doubtless factored.
Havertz and Pulisic were high octane in comparison, offering enticing pace, movement and end product.
The question of quite how Lukaku best fits into this Chelsea line-up endures, but in another hectic week of cup fare, the Blues’ bosses will happily kick that conundrum into the long grass.
The Champions League holders are now firm favourites to reach the quarter-finals, with Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Liverpool racing into view.
Chelsea could be left to sweat on the availability for that Wembley clash of two in-form stars though, after injury scares for Ziyech and Mateo Kovacic.
Both Morocco forward Ziyech and Croatia midfielder Kovacic hobbled out of the clash with the glum expressions of those harbouring more than just knocks.
Tuchel will certainly hope for good news on two men who would expect to have a say in Sunday’s Wembley proceedings.
Havertz blew a fine chance with the opening salvo, flicking over from a low cross. The former Bayer Leverkusen man was offside in any event, but knew he should at least have found the net.
Neither the Germany star nor Chelsea had long to fret over that profligacy however, as the Blues quickly stole the lead.
Ziyech’s masterful, skimmed corner unpicked Lille’s zonal set-up, Havertz drifted into a pocket of space, ghosted onto the ball and nodded home. A stylish opener for the Blues, delivered by the busy Havertz.
Where Lukaku had mustered just seven touches in 90 minutes against Palace on Saturday, here Havertz handed Chelsea the lead with his eighth touch.
The goal seemed to take the wind out of Chelsea’s sails, leaving the Blues to drift safely to the break with that 1-0 lead.
Pulisic had been forced to grind through plenty of graft in the first half, frequently dropping deep to receive the ball in tight spaces and with his back to the play.
Tuchel clearly ordered a shift in tactics at the break, because straight from the restart Pulisic was off and running in attack, far higher up the field and driving at the Lille rearguard.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek replaced a hobbling Kovacic as Tuchel continued to try to up the pace, and Kante’s hanging cross almost bore fruit for the hosts.
Zeki Celik’s botched clearance dropped to Marcos Alonso, but the Spaniard’s low drive was blocked in front of goal.
Ziyech then limped out of the clash too, to hand Tuchel and Chelsea another possible injury worry.
But just when the frustrations appeared to be mounting for the Blues, a rapier break scythed through the niggles to put the hosts in full control.
Kante powered through the inside-left channel, forcing Lille’s defenders to back off him as he ate up the ground.
The France midfielder delayed his through-ball to the perfect moment to feed the onrushing Pulisic, and the USA forward delivered a deadly finish in clipping past Leo Jardim.
Pulisic’s more advanced role paid major dividend for a Blues side that then shut up shop and negotiated the rest of a profitable night.