On Sunday Chelsea marked their Premier League return and their first-ever match behind closed doors with a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa. Christian Pulisic and Olivier Giroud supplied the goals as the Blues cemented their fourth-place spot.
Despite dominating throughout, Frank Lampard’s side found themselves trailing at halftime to a Kourtney Hause goal.
However, they turned it around with two quick goals in the span of three minutes, both assisted by captain Cesar Azpilicueta, to propel the side to victory.
Mason Mount was also a notable performer on the day, as was N’Golo Kante, who recently recovered from an injury.
Here are some of my thoughts on today’s game.
1. Christian Pulisic is a game changer
When the young American came onto the pitch against Villa he had an instant impact. His pace and trickery unnerved the opposing defence and he supplied a great threat out wide.
His most important contribution was volleying home the equaliser off the underside of the bar from a centimetre-perfect Cesar Azpilicueta cross. By doing so, he also shifted the momentum of the game.
Pulisic was a constant threat today, which was more than could be said for the man he replaced, Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
His future starting role at Chelsea may be under threat next season – although I don’t think it will be – with the arrivals of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, but at the moment he undoubtedly must be starting.
He is Chelsea’s best option out wide right now, and I expect to see him get the start against City.
2. N’Golo Kante is at his best when he plays central defensive midfielder
In the absence of Jorginho, the Frenchman looked back to his best in his more comfortable holding midfielder position. Ever since Jorginho’s arrival, Kante was pushed into a more advanced position, encouraged to go forward and participate in the attack.
While Kante is still a good midfielder playing as a No. 8, and Sunday showed that as a defensive midfielder he is simply world-class. Time after time he mopped up potential opposing counterattacks, won the ball back and recycled play.
He also showed his wide passing range, an excellent first touch under pressure and an ability to distribute the ball effectively, all of which make him a great fit to play as a holding midfielder.
When Jorginho returns next match against Man City it’ll be interesting to see if Kante is moved forward again, if Jorginho is benched or if they are both chosen as defensive midfielders against a very attacking side.
Whatever happens next time out, Kante has made it evident today that he plays his best football as a defensive midfielder. Time will tell how Lampard responds.
3. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is still not match fit
While everyone was returning after a three-month spell without playing, Loftus-Cheek had not played in over 400 days, so expecting him to be match fit immediately would be naive.
This certainly makes me question Lampard’s decision to start him right away, especially given his uninspiring showing today.
The 24-year-old lacked invention, accuracy and sharpness, all qualities that made him invaluable prior to his injury, but that will come with time.
In fairness to Lampard, this was probably the best game to play him in given the opponent. While he may not have contributed much to the win, playing 55 minutes today puts him well on the path to match fitness.
For the time being, though, he needs to continue to train hard and maybe make short cameo appearances in the upcoming games against City and Leicester, but by no means should he be starting in these games.
When he is back to full fitness he will be a huge boost to Chelsea, so he should not be rushed back into the team.
4. Azpilicueta is still Chelsea’s best fullback
After all the talk this season about youngster Reece James replacing the captain in the team, Azpilicueta silenced his doubters with his performance today.
The Spaniard was sharp and focused as ever defensively, but today he combined that with two assists. With Villa’s very defensive approach, the Blues whipped in cross after cross, and part of those duties fell to Azpilicueta.
After a peach of a cross to get Pulisic on the scoresheet, he then popped up on the left side to set up Giroud, who turned and fired into the net via a slight deflection.
This took his tally to seven assists this season, which is very impressive for a defender not known for his attacking prowess.
Conversely, James is known for his attacking prowess, but when he was subbed in today to see the game out he nearly gave every Chelsea fan, me included, a heart attack, losing the ball four times in around eight minutes.
The unnecessary pressure he put on his backline, especially when he was brought on to alleviate such pressure, showed that the young fullback still has a long way to go before reaching his captain’s level.
When required Azpilicueta always shows up, and he is still an integral part of the Chelsea team.
5. Willian is on his way out of the club
Today’s showing from the veteran Brazilian winger did not look like that of a player who wants to fight for his future; it looked like that of a player who is seeing out his remaining days as a Chelsea member.
Willian, whose contract expires on 30 June, is in ongoing negotiations with Chelsea to extend it at least until the end of the season. The club has until Tuesday to sort this out or he will be ineligible to play the remaining matches.
I expected Willian to put in a spirited performance as a message to the Chelsea board about what he can still bring to the team, but instead he looked lazy and uninterested.
He did not try to take people on or get to the byline, instead just choosing to make simple passes and keep the ball moving. While that could be applaudable for a holding midfielder, a winger is supposed to be a creative force.
I’m not saying he had a bad game; he just wasn’t in the thick of it. Whereas Mason Mount and even Christian Pulisic buzzed around the field with loads of energy, Willian did not seem as if he was fighting for his future.
This game today was the last game before the decision about his future must be finalised, and based on this evidence the man, who a season ago was worthy of the No. 10 shirt, may not even finish the season with the Blues.
The first taste of Premier League football since the restart ultimately went well for Chelsea. Favourable results elsewhere mean Lampard’s side holds a five-point lead over closest challengers, Man United, in fifth.
Now the onus is on them to carry their form into their remaining games, starting with a difficult match against City at Stamford Bridge on Thursday (Friday AEST).