The hosts took the lead midway through the first half when Reece James directed Matt Targett’s cross into his own net but Chelsea responded quickly and levelled from the penalty spot through Jorginho after Callum Hudson-Odoi was fouled by Matty Cash.
Lukaku came off the bench at half-time and made an instant impact as he glanced Hudson-Odoi’s cross into the net on 56 minutes. Mason Mount then had a golden chance to add a third as he beat Emi Martinez to the ball but couldn’t steer his shot into the open goal.
Hudson-Odoi had a chance to wrap up all three points but Martinez made a crucial stop to keep his side in the match – before Lukaku was scythed down in the box by Ezri Konsa while through on goal late on. Jorginho stepped up to add his second from the spot and confirm the victory for Chelsea.
Here are five things we learned…
Lukaku can offer Chelsea relief in tough run
If you rewind back to September and Lukaku’s two goals in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa, it felt like Chelsea had found the final piece of their jigsaw under Thomas Tuchel, and that the Belgian striker would fire the Blues to the Premier League title.
Remarkably, although injuries and Covid-19 have played their part, Lukaku’s header to put Chelsea 2-1 in front at Villa Park was his first Premier League goal since. Now, Chelsea are struggling to keep pace with Manchester City in the title race, but Lukaku’s return to the scoresheet has arrived at the perfect time and could offer Tuchel’s side a ray of hope heading into their tough January run.
Even though Chelsea have played well at times without Lukaku this season, the introduction of the striker at half time was a change that was crying out to be made, given the lack of threat and central presence the Blues exhibited in the first half. The defending from Tyrone Mings was poor, sure, but the movement of Lukaku to get ahead of him and glance Hudson-Odoi’s cross into the net showed his irreplaceable class. As for the late penalty, that was Lukaku at his irrepressible, unstoppable best.
The solutions Tuchel had found in getting round Lukaku’s absence seemed to have run thin, even a couple of weeks ago, his return could reinvigorate them, with every point now crucial given City’s form.
Villa’s approach causes Chelsea problems
Even though Steven Gerrard was absent at Villa Park, following his positive Covid-19 test, the Aston Villa manager clearly had prepared his side well for the visit of the European champions.
There was plenty to like about Villa’s performance here, even as they fell to a home defeat. Gerrard’s side were compact and frustrated Chelsea by denying them space in central areas. They took their chance in forcing the Blues out wide to Reece James and Marcos Alonso – but their delivery was poor in the final third. Hudson-Odoi’s was less so.
In any case, the gameplan for Villa was clearly to sit back and hit Chelsea on the break through the split forwards of Ollie Watkins and Danny Ings. Finding a system that gets the best out of the two strikers is a problem Gerrard will need to solve over the coming weeks, but in this sort of fixture Watkins is a perfect fit for the role. Ings will be more of a challenge.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for some excellent first-half defending from Trevoh Chalobah, Watkins could have punished Chelsea on the counter-attack on a couple of occasions as Villa looked to hit the striker with the ball over the top.
Villa remained competitive after falling behind and the three matches they have lost under Gerrard have now come against the Premier League’s top three. If it wasn’t for some poor defending from Mings (or exceptional forward play from Lukaku) they could have claimed themselves a point.
Chelsea regathering numbers ahead of crucial run
Slowly but surely, the strength in depth in Chelsea’s squad is beginning to return again.
After being able to only name four outfield substitutes on their bench in the 0-0 draw at Wolves last weekend, due to a combination of Covid absences and injuries, Tuchel will be hopeful that his squad is in a better place now for his side’s run of three matches in a week, culminating in the crucial home match against Liverpool on Sunday.
Lukaku and Hudson-Odoi have returned from Covid to boost their frontline. Lukaku hit the winner here while Hudson-Odoi was impressive throughout. In midfield, N’Golo Kante got more minutes and, crucially, was also afforded some rest thanks to Mateo Kovacic’s timely return.
There has been a considerable drop-off during Chelsea’s tough run when two of Jorginho, Kante and Kovacic has been out or needs replacing – that was not the case here as the Croatian came on to steady the ship during the second half.
There will be a slight concern defensively, however, following the second-half injury to Thiago Silva, as well as the fact that Chalobah was replaced at half-time. That may have been precautionary, as there is a chance the 22-year-old will need to go again when Chelsea host Brighton on Wednesday.
Chelsea concede another freak goal, or was it?
Chelsea’s defensive struggles continued as Aston Villa took the lead midway through the first half – although, at first glance, it seemed to be one of those freakish goals that you only ever seem to concede during a tough run of form.
There were plenty of similarities with James’ own goal to Arthur Masuaku’s winner in Chelsea’s 3-2 defeat at West Ham earlier this month – especially the way the ball seemed to awkwardly loop into the net.
On second glance, however, like with the Masuaku goal and despite the unusual nature of the goal, it was fair to ask whether goalkeeper Edouard Mendy could have prevented it, given the height in which it beat him.
While the surprise of the change of direction undoubtedly makes it a harder save, like the Masuaku shot it seemed to pass through his gloves. It may be one of those goals that looks awkward on the eye but technically no one is at fault.
Tuchel had to make a change at HT
Although they have been hit by injuries and Covid absences in recent weeks, there has been an element of randomness to some of the front threes picked by Tuchel during Chelsea’s recent run.
Hudson-Odoi was the new name in Chelsea’s attacking line here, joining Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic – and he was perhaps the brightest of those forwards. He looked sharp on the ball when drifting inside and he made penetrating runs in the other direction, which is where he won his penalty.
Mount is as certain a selection as you could ask for – but in looking for solutions given the absence of Kai Havertz and Timo Werner and with Lukaku on the bench, Pulisic continued to frustrate in a central role.
The key stat which summed up his first half was that he didn’t touch the ball in the Aston Villa penalty box. The hosts made it difficult for Chelsea’s forwards by flooding the central areas and forcing the ball out wide, but it was no surprise to see Tuchel make his change at the break.