Romelu Lukaku provides a promising glimpse of the real Chelsea after Blues threaten to misfire again

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Chelsea should be much better for the return of Romelu Lukaku - and the £97.5million striker should benefit no end from his game-changing contribution from the bench at Aston Villa on Boxing Day.

Coming on at half-time, he fired Thomas Tuchel’s side ahead within 11 minutes and then won a stoppage time penalty for Jorginho to seal a vital 3-1 victory.

This was a game that was in danger of turning into another bad day for Chelsea, who stepped onto the pitch knowing Manchester City had opened up a nine-point lead on them at the top of the table. While it was not yet a must-win, more dropped points would have cast serious doubt on their ability to mount a serious challenge for the title in the New Year.

Trailing to a Reece James own goal in the first-half, they needed another Jorginho penalty to level the score before the break. But they looked far from convincing at Villa Park, with the home side repeatedly stretching them at the back and reducing them to that one spot-kick by way of a shot on target.

With Christian Pulisic operating as a false No9 and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount struggling to provide any meaningful service, Chelsea were quite literally pointless up front.

Tuchel sent for Lukaku and he showed precisely what they had been missing since his ankle injury back in October. He may have been available for the past month – but he has been nowhere near full fitness, while a bout of Covid has also delayed his progress.

The Belgian was signed as the missing piece of the puzzle for Chelsea – and he looked every bit that from the moment he stepped on the pitch, replacing Trevoh Chalobah, who had been exposed on a number of occasions in the first 45 minutes.

Suddenly Chelsea had something to aim at and suddenly their quality of ball improved as a result.

Within moments of the restart he had clattered into Emi Martinez and Tyrone Mings when rising to meet one cross.

If that was an example of the physical threat Villa were suddenly presented with, his goal demonstrated his prowess in the box, both in terms of movement and finishing.

Anticipating Callum Hudson-Odoi’s cross from the left, he dropped Mings from six yards out, before a sudden burst of pace saw him dart in front of the England defender and direct his header into the far corner.

It put Chelsea in control for the first time in a game that could so easily have cost them more title race points if not for their record signing.

With Villa chasing late on for an equaliser, it was then Lukaku’s speed across the ground when chasing another ball from the impressive Hudson-Odoi that saw him drive into the box with only Martinez to beat.

Ezri Konsa gave chase and the Villa man’s only option was to lunge in, sending Lukaku tumbling and prompting Martin Atkinson to point to the spot for Jorginho to finish.

Time will tell how important this win was – but defeat or even a draw would have placed intense scrutiny on Tuchel’s ability to keep pace with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in a three-horse title race.

Pulisic did not convince as a false nine – but, in his defence, the service rarely provided clear openings.

Chelsea’s slump over the past month has been alarming but this was a reminder of what they have had to work without their best players.

At his best, Lukaku is a supreme match-winner – particularly against opposition like Villa.

He can go missing against the very best, but he was bought to roll over the majority of the field.

Teams like Burnley, West Ham, Everton and Wolves, who have cost Chelsea nine points in recent weeks as their title challenge has stalled.

Pulisic did not convince as a false nine – but, in his defence, the service provided by James, Mount and Hudson-Odoi rarely produced clear openings for the American.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

While a lack of cohesion up front could be mitigated by the makeshift nature of Tuchel’s attack, of more concern was the ease with which Villa cut through a full-strength midfield to expose Chelsea’s defence.

On several occasions the home side managed to get beyond the last defender – with Chalobah struggling in particular. It was only poor decision-making that prevented them from working Edouard Mendy regularly enough.

They did not even need a shot to take the lead after 28 minutes when another break stretched Chelsea and Targett’s cross was diverted past Mendy by the head of James.

If that was a gift, Villa felt good for their lead – and had they managed to stay in front for longer, it would have been a sterner test of their opponents’ confidence. Instead they cheaply gave Chelsea the chance to get straight back into the game when Matthew Cash needlessly lunged at Hudson-Odoi in the box to concede a penalty.

Jorginho stepped up and swept his penalty past Martinez to level the scores after 34 minutes. It gave Chelsea something to build on – and Lukaku did the rest.

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