On a bitter night in west London Chelsea and Aston Villa fought out a commendably feisty 1-1 draw that will leave Dean Smith the happier manager.
Villa produced a compact, resilient performance and might easily have won the game, even if Anwar El Ghazi’s second-half goal was helped by a weak piece of defending from Andreas Christensen, who injured his own foot trying to foul Jack Grealish.
For Frank Lampard a point made it four from a possible 15 over 17 days either side of Christmas. Chelsea were bitty at times and convincing at others, but there was no lack of effort or fight from the players.
Lampard will be aware that his team’s best moments hardly counted as solving the creative conundrum. Ben Chilwell crossing repeatedly toward Olivier Giroud is a good attacking plan, and one that paid off here. But it doesn’t require £200m to get there.
At kick off Stamford Bridge was a striking spectacle under the cold white lights, steam billowing off the players, the shouts of the benches ringing around this tier 4 ghost-ground.
For both teams this was a second game in the space of three days. Villa came to west London not just in fine form, but playing a rousing style of football, able to press from the front or counterattack.
Smith resisted the urge to rotate, and talked afterwards about the need to maintain “momentum and confidence”. “They looked me in the eye and said they were ready to go again. You have to have that trust with your players and I certainly have that with mine.”
Chelsea had the means, and indeed the need to rotate this evolving team. After three defeats in four Lampard had talked about “personality” and players not working hard enough. This kind of thing might work as a screen in public, but it is to be hoped in private the manager is focusing more closely on combinations, attacking rhythms, and drawing the most from a group of players assembled on the hoof.
Timo Werner, in particular, is a high spec part used to running into space from deep in a more central role. His lack of impact is not a failing of “personality” but a confusion of roles. Here he was rested at the start. Cesar Azpilicueta came in at right-back. Giroud and Callum Hudson-Odoi started in attack.
Chelsea began with some pent-up aggression. Twice in the opening minutes Grealish was jostled to the ground and left waving his hand in search of a phantom free-kick. With 11 minutes gone Chelsea made the first real chance. Christian Pulisic picked up a misplaced Grealish pass, skittered through the right hand channel and spanked a powerful shot just wide.
At the other end Grealish pranced away from a line of blue shirts, hit the byline and pulled the ball back into a crowd of players just away from Ollie Watkins.
After which Chelsea’s initial burst of energy settled into a muted back-and-forth. Chilwell’s overlapping runs were by far the most potent weapon, helped by Bertrand Traoré’s failure to track back. And it was from this side they took the lead on 34 minutes. Chilwell took a neat pass from Pulisic. His cross to the near post was perfectly clipped for Giroud to lean in, wrench his neck muscles and send a lovely centre forward’s header into the bottom corner.
It was Giroud’s eighth goal in his last eight Chelsea games. He linked the play well here, moved with an easy gliding intelligence, and gave the Chelsea attack a kind of on-the-hoof coherence.
Soon after the lively Mount skipped through on the left and smashed a shot over the bar from an angle. Hudson-Odoi began to float across and join the attack in the centre. And Chelsea were dominant as half-time approached, zipping the ball about at speed, combinations firing.
The second half began as the first had ended. Another fine Chilwell cross fell safely. “They kept getting a two-v-one in the first half on the left but we addressed that at half-time,” Smith said afterwards. It took five minutes for Villa to draw level.
The goal came from a 50-50 challenge between Grealish and Christensen near the halfway line. Christensen left a leg out as Grealish grooved past. This was a case of mugging yourself as both men went down in pain. The Chelsea man stayed down. Stuart Attwell waved play on correctly. Villa funnelled the ball to the right. Matty Cash curled in a dipping cross and Anwar El Ghazi volleyed through Édouard Mendy’s legs.
Christensen was soon back up on his feet. His absence at the back was expertly pounced upon. It really was a moment for a central defender to hobble back into position rather than wait for attention.
Chelsea pressed back with commendable energy. There was a startling clearance off the line by Ezri Konsa with 65 minutes gone, leaping back to clear a goalbound header from Pulisic. Two minutes later the increasingly prominent John McGinn smashed a shot on to the Chelsea bar from 30 yards.
Villa had come on strong in that middle period, Douglas Luiz and McGinn wresting control of midfield. With 20 minutes to go Lampard sent on Werner and Kai Havertz. Villa’s Jacob Ramsey shot inches wide shortly after coming on. Chilwell smashed a late volley past the far post. A point apiece was fair, but Villa left with an air of destiny about them.