It is still a three-horse race. That is the message that came through loud and clear at Villa Park as Chelsea battled to a 3-1 win over Aston Villa.
The scoreline suggests a degree of ease, but it was only in the dregs of this match that there was any real comfort for Chelsea, once Jorginho had slotted the second of his two penalties on Boxing Day. The first was an equaliser to Reece James’s own goal that gave Villa a surprise but deserved lead 28 minutes in.
Yet the lion’s share of the praise belongs to Romelu Lukaku, who returned to action for a second-half cameo that drastically altered the dimensions of this tussle. His header 11 minutes after the break gave Chelsea a lead they held until the end, and brought about a marked improvement in their work in the final third.
It was Lukaku’s fourth league goal of the season but just his first since 11 September, which also happened to be against Aston Villa. And though he has not started in the league since a visit to Brentford on 16 October, his work, particularly the devastating dribble that brought about the second penalty, suggests he is finally fighting fit.
Amid the maelstrom of Covid-enforced postponements, now was the time for Chelsea to crack on off the back of a league slump that has seen them not just relinquish top spot but drop to third. One win in their last four games and Manchester City’s 3pm demolition of Leicester City had them nine points adrift of first place before kick-off. That advantage is now just six, and also sees Thomas Tuchel’s side draw level with Liverpool in second on 41 points, albeit with the Reds having a game in hand.
Chelsea’s prospects coming into this fixture were a little brighter with the returns of Lukaku and Callum Hudson-Odoi, who provided the assist for the former’s goal having been felled for the leveller. The Belgian began on the bench while the latter featured in a three-pronged attack that had Christian Pulisic as its middle focal point in the absence of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner. The American struggled to make an impact and was shifted to right wing-back to make way for Lukaku when Tuchel withdrew Trevoh Chalobah and moved James into the right centre-back position at half-time.
Chelsea’s Reece James headed in an own goal in the first half
Aston Villa meanwhile, shorn of Steven Gerrard’s influence beyond Zoom calls and a constant line of communication to assistant Gary McAllister, had to make do without the influential John McGinn and Ashley Young, with Danny Ings returning to the XI along with a rare start for Morgan Sanson in midfield.
Those were their only two changes from the 2-0 victory over Norwich 12 days ago, and both aspects were reflected with a bright and brave start by the hosts in front of engaging home support. The movement of Ollie Watkins and Ings allowed for a few line-breaking passes that had Chelsea’s defence haring towards their own goal more than they’d have liked or expected in the opening 20 minutes.
As it happens, the opening goal came with yellow shirts set and seemingly in charge of a dangerous situation. A cross from the right was headed out of danger before being laid back into the path of Matt Targett. The second cross was firm but into the first man. Unfortunately for that man – James – his intervention merely served to flick the ball into the far corner over a sprawling Edouard Mendy.
The lead lasted just five minutes: Hudson-Odoi blind-siding Matty Cash to win a penalty that Jorginho converted. It was the Italian’s fourth success from the spot for Chelsea this season, made all the sweeter after Emi Martinez’s attempts to put him off by scuffing the penalty spot. The Argentinian goalkeeper was shown a yellow card before being sent the wrong way.
Indeed these two shots in the arm gave both sides encouragement to put themselves out there a little more up to the interval, even if the first half ended with just a single shot on target between them. And Lukaku’s emergence at the break for his first appearance since a three-minute cameo against Leeds 15 days ago suggested another booster was on the way.
Jorginho scored two penalties, one either side of Lukaku’s goal
It arrived on 56 minutes. Hudson-Odoi’s check-back prior to a cross from the left allowed Lukaku to dip behind Tyrone Mings, then dart in front of him to guide a header into the far corner.
Chelsea might have been home with time to spare if Mount had kept his composure on 66 minutes. A run from deep on the right was followed by a touch inside to pass Martinez, who was left stranded on the edge of the box. Alas, Mount dragged a left-foot shot wide of the near post with both Lukaku and Hudson-Odoi open in central positions.
Instead, a one-goal deficit meant Villa preyed on the visitor’s anxiety at only holding a one-goal lead. And with Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kante subbed out through injury and game management respectively (replaced by Andreas Christensen and Mateo Kovacic), the Chelsea XI held on wearily as the hosts freshened up their attack.
That being said, Chelsea got the best opportunity at the death. Another chance to kill the game was missed with two minutes of normal time to go when Hudson-Odoi was thwarted by Martinez after good build-up work from Lukaku and Kovacic. But a one-man counter from Lukaku brought a second penalty as Ezri Konsa took a yellow for a foul that asked Jorginho to do it again from the spot.
He had no problem making it five penalties in a row, even with Martinez guessing the right way this time. And as Villa kicked off for a few kicks before the four minutes of added time elapsed, Chelsea could finally breathe easy.