Christian Pulisic came off the bench to play his part and Olivier Giroud was on target as the Blues recovered from a half-time deficit to win on a historic occasion, our first-ever competitive game behind closed doors.
The three points, which strengthened our position in the top four, were well-deserved on the balance of play, and it was hard to believe we had gone behind at the end of a first half in which we had created chances and enjoyed over three-quarters of the possession.
With the Blues trailing 1-0 with an hour gone, captain Cesar Azpilicueta was also a major player in the turnaround as he supplied the assists for two goals in three minutes, the first a cross for the American to score with a volley, the second a pass into the French centre-forward to finish on the turn.
Villa keeper Orjan Nyland made several saves to prevent other Chelsea players from scoring, primarily the lively pair of Willian and Mason Mount, while although not completely untroubled, Kepa had little to do. In the 43rd minute and and having saved a shot initially, he was beaten by Villa’s Kortney Hause for the opening goal of the game.
Just before the match began there was a minute’s silence for all those who have passed away due to the COVID-19 pandemic, followed straightaway afterwards by the players taking the knee, as has been the case at all Premier League games since the restart – a symbol of support for the Black Lives Matter protests.
Those messages were further reinforced today by the words Black Lives Matter on the back of the kit where player names would usually be, plus badges on the shirts for that campaign and in recognition of the work of the NHS in countering the pandemic.
So just how rusty would the Chelsea team be after three months off, playing a team that at least had one match under their belt, played four days earlier on this ground?It was a fair start to the half by the Blues and we got better later in it, only to suffer late on.In those opening minutes, Willian, after a run inside from the right, had a shot blocked while the home side were reliant on set-pieces for their attacks into our area and it took until 20 minutes for either goal to be properly threatened.That was when Mason Mount, finding some space outside of the area, struck the ball with plenty of power but Nyland, diving to his left, saved very well with one hand in front of the empty Holte End.
Upping our game
That was the cue for the Blues turn up the pace and the pressure, interrupted briefly by the now regulatory drinks break midway through the half.Willian flashed a ball across the face of the Villa goal with a stretching Giroud making a vain attempt to apply the crucial touch, and Mount again extended Nyland.The Villa keeper was less secure when the ball span away from his palms moments later but it was panic over when he grabbed it before it could cross the line. Then it was time for Kepa to make his first save of the game with just over half-an-hour played, Anwar El Ghazi the Villa player denied.
Most of Chelsea’s openings were being generated down our right and when Mount wriggled his way through and crossed low to the far post five minutes before half-time, it looked certain the deadlock would be broken, but Loftus-Cheek, like Giroud earlier, could not quite reach it.Instead it was Villa who went 1-0 up, and completely against the run of play when Chelsea’s far-post defending was found wanting.Douglas Luiz was the player who delivered the cross there, and it was a good one, but we had allowed two players to escape the marking. Although Kepa was able to keep out the initial effort by El Ghazi, Hause was quick to pounce and turn the loose ball in.Alonso had a volley blocked and Kovacic was not far away with a 20-yarder before half-time but somehow we went in behind.
We were facing a defensive Villa side even before the goal but this was now increasingly the case and Frank Lampard waited only 10 minutes after the restart to make a double switch – Barkley and Pulisic brought on for Kovacic and Loftus-Cheek.Giroud was frustrated when an Azpilicueta near-post cross did not fall where he needed it but with an hour played, another cross from the skipper did do the trick.This time he sent the ball deeper to the far post where Pulisic, playing his first game since New Year’s Day due to injury, arrived unmarked and volleyed in off the underside of the crossbar.
Just two minutes later we were ahead when Giroud, on the spin, fired in from near the penalty spot having been found by an Azpi pass. Giroud was involved in the build-up too, with Mount also instrumental.Tammy Abraham came on towards the end against the side for whom he top scored last season and headed a corner wide, and Willian had a decent drive turned over before one late scare for the Blues when Grealish shot wide following a Christensen lapse.With that ball going wide, we had secured our first league win away from home in 2020.
If there was one benefit of the enforced and extended break, it was the chance it gave for N’Golo Kante to recover fully from injury and the midfielder was included from the off by Lampard today, as the midfield anchor.With four changes to the side compared with the one that had beaten Everton 105 days earlier, Mateo Kovacic also returned to the starting 11 and Ruben Loftus-Cheek played his first game since his serious injury in May 2019, as one of the front three. Andreas Christensen replaced Kurt Zouma in central defence. Jorginho was suspended. Villa were unchanged.
How good was it to see Loftus-Cheek playing for the first time since rupturing his Achilles in Boston 13 months ago? Before the game Frank Lampard explained the young England international had been training brilliantly and although he was understandably one of the first players substituted, he almost marked his return with a goal but could not quite reach a cross at the far post.
The West Midlanders have not enjoyed their recent encounters with the Blues and that continued this afternoon. We have now won six league games in a row against Aston Villa, extending what was already our best winning run against them.
The race for the top four
We are now five points clear of Man United and Wolves who are below us in fifth and sixth. Generally the results for our immediate challenges since the restart have been gone our way. Wolves did win but Sheffield United’s defeat by Newcastle earlier today was to our benefit.
The games come thick and fast now up to the end of the season and there is a four-day gap before we entertain second-place Manchester City at Stamford Bridge. That is a Thursday evening game, with kick-off at 8.15pm UK time.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta (c), Rudiger, Christensen, Alonso; Kovacic (Barkley 55), Kante, Mount; Willian (James 90), Giroud (Abraham 80), Loftus-Cheek (Pulisic 55).Unused subs Caballero, Zouma, Emerson, Gilmour, Pedro.Scorers Pulisic 60, Giroud 62Booked Kante 94
Villa (4-3-3): Nyland; Konsa, Hause, Mings, Targett; Hourihane (Nakamba 70), Douglas Luiz, McGinn (Jota 87); El Ghazi (Trezeguet 70), Davis (Samatta 57), Grealish (c).Unused subs Reina, Taylor, Elmohamady, Vassilev, Baston,Scorer Hause 45Booked Konsa 45, Grealish 95Referee Paul Tierney