Chelsea continued our excellent start to the Premier League season as a much-changed team defeated Aston Villa 3-0 in the first game after the September international break.
Romelu Lukaku, making his first home appearance since his return to the club, scored two fine goals either side of an opportunist effort from Mateo Kovacic as both players registered their first-ever goals at Stamford Bridge.
However, the scoreline does not reflect how hard-fought a win this was. After Lukaku had given us the lead on 15 minutes, Villa created several chances of their own in an end-to-end first half.
Thomas Tuchel’s side looked in far better control after half-time, settling into more of a rhythm after Kovacic had doubled the lead on 49 minutes. We largely restricted Villa to opportunistic efforts thereafter, defending our box effectively, before breaking away to add a stunning third in stoppage time.
The victory pushes us up to second in the table after four matches, level with leaders Manchester United on 10 points. It was our 600th Premier League victory, making us only the second club to reach that milestone.
Reflecting the ultra-short preparation time ahead of this game, Tuchel selected six starters who had not played during the recent international break, giving a debut to deadline day signing Saul in midfield. Thiago Silva returned at the heart of the defence, as did Trevoh Chalobah, with Toni Rudiger making up the back three on his 100th Premier League appearance.
Callum Hudson-Odoi – making his 100th appearance for Chelsea – was selected at right wing-back, while Marcos Alonso was named as captain for the first time on the opposite flank.
Lukaku was supported in attack by Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz, who made his 50th Blues appearance.
Meanwhile, there was a return to the matchday squad for Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who spent last season away on loan.
Out of the blocks
The game began in breathless fashion, with chances at either end in the opening 10 minutes. Within the first minute, Rudiger charged forward with the ball at his feet, exchanged passes with Havertz and struck a left-footed shot from which we won a corner. Before Villa could clear the lines, Alonso and Lukaku managed further efforts at goal as we began with intent.
Villa threatened shortly afterwards, when Ezri Konsa headed a wide free-kick just over the bar in the fourth minute, before the centre-back was called into defensive action moments later. A wicked inswinging corner from Hudson-Odoi missed everyone and looked to be heading inside the far post, but a desperate touch from Konsa on the line diverted it onto the crossbar, before Villa cleared it to safety.
It was clear that there were goals in this game from the off, and the opener arrived on 15 minutes. Kovacic slalomed through two challenges inside his own half before spotting the run of Lukaku and playing a perfectly weighted pass for the Belgian to run onto. As he bore down on goal on the left side of the area, he cut back inside Axel Tuanzebe and onto his right foot before finishing calmly for his first-ever goal at Stamford Bridge.
End to end
Villa responded in spirited fashion and Edouard Mendy was called into action three minutes later to turn a powerful Ollie Watkins strike round his near post. Then Saul was robbed of possession deep inside our own half, and from the resulting break Watkins rounded a full-stretch Mendy and looked to roll the ball home. However, Thiago Silva had read the danger and denied him with a brilliant last-ditch lunge.
As a relentless first half continued to thrill, Mendy produced a magnificent double save on 33 minutes, first denying a thudding effort by Tyrone Mings, before reacting quickly to get to a miscued effort by Konsa on the rebound.
The half-time whistle came was welcomed by the home side, as Villa ended the half the stronger.
Jorginho was introduced in place of Saul at the beginning of the second half, taking up his familiar position in the centre of the pitch, and just minutes after the restart his midfield partner Kovacic settled any nerves among the home support with our second goal.
The Croatian anticipated a mix-up between Tuanzebe and Tyrone Mings and pounced to steal possession on the edge of the box, before clipping the ball beyond the onrushing Villa goalkeeper Jed Steer to make it 2-0.
Now playing with renewed confidence, Chelsea poured forward and Havertz hit a low shot narrowly wide of the far post on 51 minutes.
Seven minutes later, applause broke out around the ground in memory of Sean Lock, the popular comedian who was a regular at Stamford Bridge for many years and recently passed away at the age of 58. Johnny Vaughan, who sat alongside Lock at Chelsea games for many years, penned a moving tribute to his friend in the matchday programme.
Shortly after the hour mark, Cesar Azpilicueta was introduced in place of Havertz. The captain slotted in at right wing-back, as Hudson-Odoi pushed into the front three, maintaining the 3-4-3 shape.
Villa responded by bringing on former Blues forward Bertrand Traore for Danny Ings, and he came close with a left-footed effort from the edge of the box that was deflected high and wide of the far post. Mendy was alive to the threat from the resulting corner, claiming Kosra’s back-post header with the minimum of fuss.
At the other end, Alonso hit a searing left-footed strike just wide of goal after some impressive interplay around the edge of the box between Lukaku, Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi. At that point – with 15 minutes remaining – it felt as though there was still life in the game, but though Villa continued to push forward their sights of goal became more fleeting as the game drew to a close.
Then, as the clock ticked towards the end of four minutes of time added on, Chelsea added a third through a spectacular left-footed strike from Lukaku, who drove the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box with Hasselbaink-esque venom following a fine run and assist by Azpilicueta.
The goal put the seal on a victory that ended up convincing, but which we had been made to battle hard for throughout by a tenacious Aston Villa side.
We return to the Bridge on Tuesday night to begin the defence of our Champions League title against Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Mendy; Chalobah, T Silva, Rudiger; Hudson-Odoi (Werner 82), Kovacic, Saul (Jorginho h/t), Alonso (c); Ziyech, Lukaku, Havertz (Azpilicueta 64)Unused subs: Kepa, Chilwell, Christensen, Barkley, Loftus-Cheek, MountScorers: Lukaku 15, 90+3 Kovacic 49Booked: Alonso 61
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Steer; Tuanzebe, Konsa, Mings; Cash, Luiz (Nakamba 79), McGinn, Ramsey (Bailey 56), Targett; Ings (Traore 69), WatkinsUnused subs: Sinisalo, Sanson, Young, Hause, El Ghazi, ArcherBooked: Ramsey 8, Mings 28, Targett 90, McGinn 90
Referee: Stuart AtwellCrowd: 39,969