Chelsea make their long-awaited return to action this Sunday, as Frank Lampard’s men travel to take on relegation-threatened Aston Villa.
With Premier League football having been suspended since early March, there is little to infer but speculation about how either team will acclimatise to their new surroundings. Chelsea went into the lockdown in a rich vein of form following consecutive wins over Liverpool and Everton. Whilst Aston Villa, winless in their last six games, are currently just a point from safety having claimed a rather fortuitous 0-0 draw against Sheffield United.
Villa’s game against Chris Wilder’s high flying Sheffield United was, on the whole, devoid of action except for one pivotal incident just before the half time whistle. Villa keeper, Orjan Nyland looked to have carried the ball over the line when coming to claim Oliver Norwood’s cross. But when the typically reliable Hawkeye technology failed to register the goal with referee Michael Oliver, the game continued despite replays clearly showing a mistake had been made.
It will have been a pleasing performance all things considered for The Villains, as they defended stoically to collect just their fifth clean sheet of the season. Going forward Villa created some promising openings, only to be thwarted by the excellent Dean Henderson – The Englishman now stands top with Burnley’s Nick Pope for clean sheets this season (11).
Chelsea, who have benefitted from a prolonged break, meanwhile welcomed back the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic as they comfortably dispatched of Reading and QPR in a couple of warm-up friendlies. Whilst the long-awaited announcement of Timo Werner’s arrival from RB Leipzig will undoubtedly provide some source of motivation for Tammy Abraham. The Englishman shone on loan at Villa last season and will be relishing the chance to add to the goal he scored in the reverse fixture this season.
The obvious threat from a Chelsea perspective comes from Jack Grealish, who has almost single-handedly ensured Villa are still in the conversation for survival. Grealish leads the way for goals, assists and passes for Villa this season, but it’s in his ability to draw fouls that the 24-year-old excels. With Villa having scored 29% of their goals directly from set-pieces Chelsea would be wise to allow Grealish time on the ball, marshalling him in field and conceding fouls high up the pitch.
Chelsea’s width both offensively and defensively could prove vital to securing all three points. Villa rarely troubled The Blues when the two sides met at Stamford Bridge in December and yet they still managed to find an equalising goal against the run of play. A narrow defensive line, presumably to try and nullify the attacking threat of Grealish and John McGinn, meant that Villa’s full-backs were able to get forward at will and cross into the area. Now Villa don’t possess an awful amount of quality in wide areas. But with Chelsea’s defenders struggling to anticipate and position themselves when defending incoming crosses, there is a considerable risk to allowing Villa time and space to pick out runners in and around the six-yard box.
The same however does apply for Villa who themselves are privy to conceding from crosses into the area. Reece James’s quality from out wide is well publicised and creating space for him to deliver is of paramount importance. Chelsea’s forward line are well versed in making underlapping runs to the byline, and this pattern of play should be replicated at any opportunity.
Chelsea, with the return of Loftus-Cheek and N’Golo Kante, possess great pace on the break and with that, there will be a keen emphasis on quickly transitioning play from defence to attack. Villa are acutely aware of their physical limitations and in light of their tendency to be caught on the break they often resort to committing fouls and slowing the pace of the game down. With both teams still not at full match fitness, this could prove to be a useful tactic for Villa as they look to frustrate the visitors. Lampard, therefore, will be looking for a midfield three that can provide him with strong running from deep rather than ball retention. The game is likely to boil down to how fast Chelsea can move the ball around, with Villa a technically proficient team who lack the physical attributes to track runners off the ball and in transition.
Lampard has ruled out both Fikayo Tomori and Callum Hudson-Odoi ahead of Chelsea’s trip to Villa Park. With Tomori having suffered a muscle injury which will keep him out for up to ten days. Whilst Hudson-Odoi is not match fit despite recovering from an injury he picked up in training.
With Manchester United claiming a point away at Tottenham on Friday night, Chelsea have been presented with an opportunity to build a five point lead over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men. Either way, after more than three months away, every Chelsea fan will be excited to see what if any progress has been made.