Mateo Kovacic opened the scoring for the visitors midway through the first half, only for Junior Adamu to level the score just three minutes after the interval. But Kai Havertz delivered a stunning eventual winner in the 64th minute, sending the Blues home with all three points, on top of Group E and beyond the reach of their rivals.
Chelsea will welcome Dinamo Zagreb to Stamford Bridge a week from Wednesday, while Salzburg will close out their Champions League group stage with a trip to AC Milan next week, to determine who will follow the West London club into the round of 16.
1. Havertz stunner seals knockout-round qualification for Chelsea
Havertz secured Chelsea's spot in the Champions League round of 16 with a stunning goal to clinch a 2-1 Group E win against Salzburg in Austria on Tuesday. The Germany forward, who scored the winning goals in the 2021 Champions League final and 2022 FIFA Club World Cup final, delivered another crucial strike for Chelsea after Salzburg had threatened to overturn a first-half deficit to boost their own qualification hopes.
With Adamu cancelling out Kovacic's 23rd-minute opener by equalising four minutes into the second half, Salzburg grew in confidence and looked on course to extend their unbeaten home record in all competitions to 41 games. But Havertz silenced the home crowd and ensured victory for Chelsea with a left-foot shot from 20 yards on 64 minutes that beat goalkeeper Philipp Kohn after hitting the underside of the crossbar.
Had Chelsea lost against the Austrian champions, they would have had to get a result at home to Dinamo Zagreb on matchday six to be certain of qualification. But Havertz ended the prospect of a nervous final game with his goal and also saw manager Graham Potter take his unbeaten run as Chelsea manager to nine games since replacing Thomas Tuchel in September.
2. Sterling continues to struggle to make an impact
Raheem Sterling was Chelsea's statement signing earlier this summer, arriving in a £47.5 million transfer from Manchester City, but the England forward saw another big game pass him by in Salzburg. The 27-year-old has now scored just once in his past 10 games for the club, and he didn't look like ending that barren streak as Graham Potter's team wasted a number of chances to win the game comfortably.
On this occasion, Sterling was forced to play as left wing-back with Potter opting to use a three-man defence in Austria. Playing out wide, with greater defensive responsibilities, is not conducive to getting the best from a player who enjoyed his best form at City in a more advanced position or as a central forward under Pep Guardiola.
Potter had clearly told Sterling to stay as wide as possible to stretch the pitch, with Christian Pulisic given the same instructions on the right flank, but the tactical plan nullified Sterling's best qualities. The challenge for Potter is to find a way to get more from one of his top players, because if Chelsea are to challenge for honours this season, Sterling needs to contribute much more.
3. Salzburg's youth policy shines again
Salzburg are regarded as having one of the best recruitment teams in Europe because of the Austrian champions' ability to unearth young talents, develop them and then move those players on to bigger clubs in more competitive leagues.
Their roster of former players is hugely impressive, led of course by Erling Haaland, who scored on his Champions League debut as a teenager after signing from Molde. Aside from Haaland, though, Salzburg have also set the likes of Sadio Mane, Dayot Upamecano, Takumi Minamino and Karim Adeyemi on their way to glory elsewhere.
Benjamin Sesko, the 19-year-old Slovenia forward, is regarded as the next big thing and he has already been lined up for a move to Red Bull partner club RB Leipzig, but he was named as a substitute by coach Matthias Jaissle because of the form of 21-year-old striker Adamu. The Austria international has scored eight goals in his past nine domestic games, so he got the nod against Chelsea and repaid his coach with the equaliser early in the second half. Adamu and Sesko are both destined for moves to bigger clubs, with defender Strahinja Pavlovic and midfielder Luka Sucic also making a big impression.
To underline Salzburg's focus on youth, their starting lineup had the youngest average age -- 22 years, 10 days -- in the Champions League since 2009. Only Arsenal (2009) and Ajax (2003 and 2004) have ever fielded younger teams in the competition.
Salzburg: Philipp Kohn 9; Amar Dedic 6, Bernardo 7, Strahinja Pavlovic 7, Maximilian Wober 7; Lucas Gourna Douath 6; Nicolas Seiwald 6, Luka Sucic 8, Maurits Kjaergaard 7; Noah Okafor 6, Chukwubuike Adamu 8
Subs: Benjamin Sesko 7, Roko Simic 6, Andreas Ulmer 6
Chelsea: Kepa Arrizabalaga 6; Trevoh Chalobah 6, Thiago Silva 7, Marc Cucurella 5; Christian Pulisic 5, Mateo Kovacic 7, Jorginho 6, Raheem Sterling 6; Conor Gallagher 6; Kai Havertz 7, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 5
Subs: Ruben Loftus-Cheek 6, Cesar Azpilicueta 6, Armando Broja 6, Hakim Ziyech 6, Mason Mount 6
Best and worst performers
BEST: Philipp Kohn, Salzburg. The Salzburg goalkeeper overcame a bang to the head from Havertz in the second minute and another blow later in the first half to produce a world-class performance for the home side. Chelsea could have scored five or six but for Kohn.
WORST: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Chelsea. The Chelsea forward missed too many clear chances for a striker of his quality. Aubameyang was a last-minute panic signing in August and he isn't the answer to the team's goal-scoring problems.
Highlights and notable moments
Potter has put himself in rarified air in his first taste of the Champions League as Chelsea manager.
Graham Potter is the first Chelsea manager to go unbeaten in their first 4 Champions League matches since Roberto Di Matteo in 2012 👀— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 25, 2022
They won the Champions League that year 🏆 pic.twitter.com/ygKcm9kfgW
After the match: What the managers, players said
Gallagher on Kovacic's goal: "It was a great finish, I couldn't believe it to be honest. To get that first goal was important and helped us out and gave us confidence in the game."
Kovacic: "It's nice to score where I was born. My parents were here and my friends."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
- Chelsea have not lost a Champions League game when scoring the first goal since April 2014, when they lost 3-1 to Atletico Madrid in the semifinals, the longest such streak in the competition dating back to at least 2010-11.
- Chelsea are now unbeaten in 21 straight games when Chalobah starts.
Salzburg: The Red Bull-backed club remain at home for their return to Austrian Bundesliga play against TSV Hartberg on Saturday.
Chelsea: The Blues will return to England for a Premier League contest on Saturday at the former home of not only Potter but also Cucurella: Brighton & Hove Albion.