A feeling of serenity tends to fall over a team who have a lethal finisher leading the line. This was the kind of game that Chelsea would have blown last season. Aston Villa were awkward opponents, particularly during a testing first half for Thomas Tuchel’s side, and it could have been a different story if they had shown greater ruthlessness when they were on top.
Instead, after a day dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to English football, the glory belonged to another expensive import from Serie A. The narrative belonged to Romelu Lukaku, whose clinical touch in front of goal has given Chelsea the look of genuine title contenders. The Belgian was outstanding, settling Chelsea’s nerves in the first half, and he gave the scoreline a deceptively emphatic feel with a spectacular goal in the dying stages.
The pattern of play during the opening period provided a perfect illustration of why Chelsea broke their transfer record for Lukaku. Somehow, despite being inferior to Villa in almost every aspect of the game, they were ahead when the interval arrived. Dean Smith’s side had barely done anything wrong and yet they still found themselves behind when they walked back to the dressing room, their frustration immense as they looked back on a series of squandered chances, some inspired goalkeeping from Édouard Mendy and the one moment when they allowed Lukaku to squirm from their grasp.
Chelsea had struggled to convince before Lukaku’s splendid opener in the 15th minute, with Saúl Ñiguez blown away by the sheer speed of the play after being handed his debut alongside Mateo Kovacic in midfield. The Spaniard looked uncomfortable from the first whistle and Villa’s midfielders duly identified him as a weak link, repeatedly hustling him off the ball before looking to send Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins behind the home defence.
It was a smart ploy from the visitors, who matched Chelsea’s 3-4-3 system, and it should have brought a reward midway through the half. John McGinn played Watkins in on goal and the striker looked certain to score after rounding Mendy, only for Thiago Silva to deny him with a magnificent block.
Watkins had also threatened from further out, cutting inside from the left and forcing Mendy to push his effort wide. The chances were piling up for Villa and they would have drawn level but for a wonderful piece of goalkeeping from Mendy shortly before half-time. The Chelsea goalkeeper did well to repel a firm drive from Tyrone Mings and he showed wonderful reflexes to save the rebound, leaping to his feet to claw Ezri Konsa’s scuffed shot away.
Improbably Chelsea survived with their lead intact. Their clinical edge, combined with a fair amount of luck, had made the difference. Although they were lethargic, they still had enough quality and they made it count when Kovacic, swerving through midfield with a lovely shimmy, sent Lukaku clear with a sublime pass down the left.
As with all the top strikers, Lukaku was content to wait for his chance to arrive. The striker sped clear, chopped inside to skip past Axel Tuanzebe’s desperate lunge and smashed a low shot past Jed Steer with his right foot.
Ultimately Villa, who were without the isolating duo of Emi Buendía and Emiliano Martínez, only had themselves to blame. They took little satisfaction from forcing Tuchel to put Saúl out of his misery and bring on Jorginho at half-time. Instead there was the sense of a missed opportunity for much of the second half, deflation taking hold after a dreadful backpass from Mings allowed Kovacic to double Chelsea’s lead in the 49th minute.
Hardly the most lethal of finishers, Kovacic readily accepted the chance to score his first goal since December 2019. The Croatian capped a strong display by sweeping the ball past Steer and Villa were left with little option but to accept their fate, even though Watkins went close to pulling one back with a shot that went just wide.
In the end Chelsea cruised to victory. Callum Hudson-Odoi, making his first appearance of the season, acquitted himself well at right wing-back and the final word went to Lukaku, who smashed in his second in stoppage-time after a wonderful run from the substitute César Azpilicueta.