Despite an improved performance and taking the lead, Chelsea were held to a draw at Stamford Bridge by Aston Villa.
Ben Chilwell was a whisker away from giving us the win in the last minute with a spectacular volley, but as it turned out beating the Premier League’s tightest defence once was as much as we could manage, despite also having one ruled out by the linesman’s flag.
Olivier Giroud had given us the lead in the first half, scoring in his seventh consecutive match against the Villans, when he met Chilwell’s low cross with a powerful diving header at the near post, and in spells at the end of both halves we looked comfortably the dominant side.
However, a controversial Villa equaliser early in the second half was enough to give them a draw, as Anwar El Ghazi turned in unmarked at the back post as play was allowed to continue for a long time despite Andreas Christensen being down injured from a collision with Jack Grealish.
Our head coach had promised to freshen things up after our disappointing first-half performance in defeat at Arsenal and stuck to his word, making five changes to his starting line-up.
The biggest changes came in defence, where only Ben Chilwell retained his place in front of Edouard Mendy. Cesar Azpilicueta returned to captain the side from right-back, while Toni Rudiger and Andreas Christensen made up the centre-back pairing.
Aston Villa were without Ross Barkley, as he is on loan from Chelsea, but did have former Blues youngster Bertrand Traore in their line-up. Their only change from the team that beat Crystal Palace was at centre-back, where Ezri Konsa replaced the suspended Tyrone Mings.
Lampard had bemoaned our slow start at Arsenal in our last match and his players certainly seemed to have got the message, as they were quick to press high up the pitch right from the first minute, with Giroud in particular doing his best to unsettle the Aston Villa defence and providing an outlet for his team-mates in possession.
One excellent chested lay-off for Mount released the midfielder down the left and resulted in an early corner which troubled the Villans, but goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez was able to gather the loose ball as it ricocheted around the six-yard box.
Shortly afterwards it was Mendy who was called into action for the game’s first real save, though, palming away Jack Grealish’s shot after the Villa captain had cut inside onto his right-foot, and our keeper had to be alert again to claim the spinning ball after a short-corner routine that was charged down.
The first 10 minutes showed this could be an open encounter, with both teams willing to commit bodies forward on the ball and working hard to win it back quickly. That looked like it could be a stern test of this Villa side, with 10 of the 11 having also started their match on Boxing Day.
The Blues’ pressure on the ball came close to giving us the lead in the 12th minute, when Giroud put the defence under pressure and Pulisic intercepted the loose pass. The American drove at the centre-backs with the ball and cut into space for the shot, but his powerful low effort rippled the netting just the wrong side of the near post.
We weren’t deterred, though, and Pulisic tried again as Mount surged into the left channel and laid the ball off, but this time the shot was charged down for another corner, which Mount swung too close to Martinez.
Too close to call
However, we weren’t having things all our own way in an increasingly even game. One Grealish run to the line through our box looked particularly threatening, but thankfully for those in Blue his pass across goal evaded everyone and Rudiger was able to clear.
The visitors were trying to release Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traore down the wings at every opportunity, requiring Chilwell and Azpilicueta to be aware of the threat their pace posed as they started to show why they have such a good away record in the Premier League this season.
Equally, Hudson-Odoi was beginning to cause problems for Villa with his direct running on the right, with one such run creating space for Kante to cross. Matt Cash bravely got his head to the ball as Pulisic attempted an audacious bicycle kick, and there was a lengthy delay to the game as the Villa medical staff checked Cash was okay to continue after that accidental blow to the head.
Aston Villa were making chances too, but struggling to force a second save from Mendy, with Konsa the latest to send an effort flying high over the bar with a header from a Grealish free-kick.
The desire of both teams not to give an inch to their opponents was summed up when Hudson-Odoi tracked all the way across the pitch from the right wing to put in a tackle on Douglas Luiz in the left-back position.
Arguably the best chance of the game so far fell Villa’s way in the form of Cash just before the half-hour mark. Mendy was unsighted as he tried to deal with a cross and the loose ball fell to Cash, but he couldn’t get his shot on target either.
We went close ourselves just moments later. Again it started with Hudson-Odoi making space on the right and when Azpilicueta delivered left-footed Giroud directed it goalwards with his chest. Martinez could only push the ball as far as Pulisic, but the American was under the ball and couldn’t keep his effort down.
The breakthrough arrives
We did have the lead with our next attack though. A well-worked move involving Giroud and Pulisic released Chilwell down the left and his low cross was met at the near post by Giroud’s diving header, which powered past Martinez into the bottom corner.
That meant Giroud had now scored in seven consecutive matches against Aston Villa as the Frenchman became the first person to breach their defence for four games in the Premier League.
That opening goal also prompted our most dominant spell so far, finding plenty of space out wide from which to cross the ball as Giroud continued to cause problems for Villa’s defence.
Mount was just a whisker away from extending our lead when he squirmed free in the box, but his powerful effort flew just over the bar, and it then took a brilliant tackle from Cash to stop Pulisic as he looked poised to pull the trigger from a similar position on the left side of the penalty area.
The first half ended with Azpilicueta being shown the game’s first yellow card for a seemingly soft foul on Anwar El Ghazi, but as half-time arrived it was Villa who looked grateful for the break. The combination of Chilwell, Pulisic and Mount down the left had been proving increasingly difficult for the visitors to handle, even if it had produced just the one goal in the opening 45 minutes.
The second half started as the first had ended, with Chilwell getting forward and delivering a dangerous cross from the left, but on this occasion Matt Targett was able to hack the ball clear from inside his own six-yard box.
All square again
However, Villa struck back with a goal through a cross of their own. There was an element of controversy with Christensen down injured following a collision with Grealish, but despite calls to put the ball out play continued and El Ghazi was found free at the back post to finish from close range.
We weren’t disheartened by that blow, though, and were soon on the front foot again and looking to restore our lead, with Kante’s curling effort from outside the box not too far from troubling Martinez. His next effort, after a clever lay-off from Azpilicueta, was on target but didn’t have enough power to worry the keeper.
With less than 30 minutes remaining we were piling on the pressure and for a moment it looked like we had retaken the lead from one of a succession of corners, but Pulisic had been correctly flagged offside in the build up before we tucked the ball away in something of a scramble.
We still had to be wary of Villa’s threat, though, even if it was now mostly restricted to counter-attacks. McGinn rattled our crossbar from range and Hudson-Odoi responded immediately by forcing a low save from Martinez with a long shot of his own.
Push for the win
That prompted a brief spell of end-to-end football, although neither side could find a clear chance to test the goalkeepers, with Havertz in particular showing some nice early touches to start opening things up again in Villa’s final third.
However, our next attempt came via Pulisic’s direct running, as he surged in from the left and fired at goal right-footed, but his shot was too high. We were exerting more pressure on Villa than at any time in the match to this point, as Havertz started to find more space between the lines, and Chilwell was next to have a go from the edge of the box, but his shot couldn’t find a way through the crowded bodies.
Villa then made their first substitution and Jacob Ramsey almost struck against the run of play with virtually his first touch, but his curling low shot from range bounced wide and one-way traffic was soon resumed, as Werner’s first effort looped just over the bar.
However, despite Villa falling deeper and deeper as we put them under sustained pressure during the closing stages of the game, taking our corner count into double figures, we couldn’t find the second goal we needed to take all three points.
Chilwell came closest to a late winner when his volley flew narrowly wide of the far post in injury time, but we would need to be content with a point against the Premier League’s best away side.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Mendy; Azpilicueta (c), Christensen, Rudiger, Chilwell; Kante, Jorginho (Havertz 71), Mount; Hudson-Odoi, Giroud (Werner 71), Pulisic
Unused subs: Kepa, Thiago Silva, Tomori, Emerson, Kovacic, Gilmour, Abraham
Scorer: Giroud 34
Booked: Azpilicueta 45, Giroud 71, Kante 73
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Martinez; Cash, Hause, Konsa, Targett; McGinn, Douglas Luiz; Traore (Davis 86), Grealish (c), El Ghazi (Ramsey 81); Watkins
Unused subs: Heaton, Taylor, Engels, Nakamba, Guilbert, Elmohamady, Hourihane,
Scorer: El Ghazi 50
Booked: El Ghazi 71
Referee: Stuart Attwell
Our next scheduled fixture is at home against Manchester City on Sunday, although their game away at Everton today was postponed after further positive Covid-19 tests at City. Following that, we host Morecambe at Stamford Bridge as we begin our FA Cup campaign in the third round on 10 January.