Over the past week, all most Chelsea fans have been talking about are next season and how new £47.5 million ($59m) signing Timo Werner will fit in Stamford Bridge alongside fellow new-boy Hakim Ziyech.
But on their return to action against Aston Villa after 105 days since their last competitive action, it was the club’s most recent big-money signing who kickstarted a comeback that puts the Blues well in control of the race to finish in the Premier League’s top-four.
Christian Pulisic’s close-range finish on the hour was followed two minutes later by Olivier Giroud finding the net as Frank Lampard’s side recovered from falling behind against the run of play to Kourtney Hause’s strike late in the first half.
The 2-1 win increases the gap on Manchester United and Wolves in fifth and sixth respectively to five points ahead of Manchester City’s arrival at Stamford Bridge on Thursday, though the west London outfit will have to be far more ruthless at both ends of the pitch against Pep Guardiola’s side than they were in the opening 45 minutes against Villa.
Chelsea dominated possession against Dean Smith’s relegation-threatened outfit but struggled to find any kind of penetration in the final third.
Mason Mount and Mateo Kovacic both went close with long-range efforts while Olivier Giroud offered good movement up front, but there was a clear lack of cutting edge.
At the other end, goalkeeper Kepa had little to do until the 43rd minute when, after Douglas Luiz’s cross was headed goalwards by Hause, he could only parry the ball back into the defender’s path for him to slam home from close-range.
It was yet another slightly worrying moment from the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, though his defenders – particularly Andreas Christensen – perhaps could have done more to help the Spain international out and react quicker to the loose ball inside the six-yard box.
It was clear that more was needed from Chelsea, who were one of the loudest voices when it came to lobbying the Premier League to introduce two extra subsitutes for each team following the coronavirus-enforced shutdown.
And it was a substitute in Pulisic who got them the goal they needed to turn the match on its head.
Lampard had assured his players ahead of kick-off that they will still have a role to play even if they are not always named in the starting line-up, telling Sky Sports : “Certainly nobody should get their head down at not starting. We’re going to have to make subs and we’re going to need impact off the bench.”
United States international Pulisic certainly took that on board.
Having replaced Ruben Loftus-Cheek – who struggled manfully in an unfamiliar left-wing role during his first competitive appearance for 406 days – Pulisic needed just five minutes to make an impact as he arrived late at the back post to slam Cesar Azpilicueta’s teasing cross into the roof of the net.
“I know Christian was very hungry,” Lampard said of leaving his £58m ($73m) winger on the bench initially. “He has trained well. The ability that he has got to arrive in the box is a big thing that I have spoken to him about all season.
“It is the difference between being a very good player off-the-side as an attacking player or the players at the real top level of the game that arrive and score in the six-yard box and who hit big numbers yearly.
“I really think Christian can do that, so I was pleased with the impact he made when he came on. He will start games for us, of course. I think he is going to be a big player for us, not just in this run-in, but going forward.”
It was some way to mark the ex-Borussia Dortmund star’s first appearance since New Year’s Day, and Blues fans watching at home did not need to wait long until they could celebrate again.
This time it was Giroud who latched onto a ball from Azpilicueta into the box before turning and firing a deflected strike past Orjan Nyland.
World Cup-winning forward Giroud has now netted eight goals in his last six appearances against the Villans, and having been preferred to former Villa loanee and this season’s top scorer, Tammy Abraham, he was again able to prove his worth to Lampard.
Whether either Giroud or Abraham will be able to hold off the competition of Werner come the start of next season remains to be seen, but Chelsea know that such a huge outlay before the transfer window has even opened means they cannot spend next season playing in the Europa League.
Fortunately for them, Pulisic has shown he is ready to step in and help lead them into the Champions League once again.