Romelu Lukaku’s double downs Aston Villa and keeps Chelsea flying high

There was a sense of inevitability about the way it ended, even though Aston Villa never stopped trying to grab the goal their performance deserved. Everybody inside Stamford Bridge knew what to expect when César Azpilicueta charged down Chelsea’s right flank in stoppage time and slipped a pass inside to Romelu Lukaku, who only had one thing on his mind when he received the ball on the edge of the area.

If the footwork from Lukaku was impressive, the strike was even better: a rising, snorting, left-footed screamer that left Villa’s goalkeeper, Jed Steer, hopelessly grasping at thin air. It was a masterful piece of forward play from one of the deadliest strikers in the world and, as the ball soared into the net, it was not hard to see why Chelsea made prising the Belgian away from Internazionale their top priority during the summer.

After all this was the kind of game that Thomas Tuchel’s side made a habit of bungling last season. Three-nil was extremely harsh on Villa, who made all of the running during the first half. It was simply their misfortune to run into a rampant Lukaku, whose hunger for goals has given Chelsea the look of genuine title contenders.

“He was the difference,” Tuchel said. “He wants to score and he wants to help the team with his goals. He has composure and confidence. He was super important. He adds something to the group that we did not have in this capacity before now.”

A feeling of serenity tends to fall over a team who have a lethal finisher leading the line. Somehow, despite being inferior to Villa in almost every aspect of the game, Chelsea were ahead when the interval arrived. Dean Smith’s side had barely done anything wrong and still they trailed, their frustration immense as they reflected on a series of missed chances and the one moment when they lost sight of Lukaku.

Chelsea had struggled to convince before Lukaku’s splendid opener in the 15th minute, with Saúl Ñiguez blown away by the intensity of the play after being handed his debut alongside Mateo Kovacic in midfield. The Spaniard was out of sorts from the start and Villa’s midfielders quickly identified him as a weak link, repeatedly hustling him off the ball before looking to link with Danny Ings and Ollie Watkins.

It was an effective ploy from the visitors, who matched Chelsea’s 3-4-3 system, and it should have yielded a reward when Saúl dithered near his own box in the 23rd minute. John McGinn released Watkins and the striker looked certain to equalise after rounding Édouard Mendy, only for Thiago Silva to deny him with a magnificent block.

There were more near misses for Villa. Watkins threatened with a low drive and Chelsea were indebted to a heroic piece of goalkeeping from Mendy, who repelled a powerful shot from Tyrone Mings before springing to his feet to claw the rebound from Ezri Konsa wide.

Yet while they were lethargic, Chelsea held firm. And as with all the top strikers, Lukaku patiently waited for an opening to arrive, then suddenly sprang into life when Kovacic brilliantly burst through midfield and cut Villa open with a sweeping pass. There was no stopping Lukaku as he sped down the left, evaded Axel Tuanzebe’s lunge and easily beat Steer.

“I’m frustrated with the scoreline,” Smith said. “But we didn’t take our moments. We don’t have to come to Chelsea like we would have done two years ago and sit with a deep block. We can now go and ask questions. We did that in the first half. Unfortunately the second goal, a big mistake, took the wind out of our sails.”

Villa, who were without the isolating duo of Emi Buendía and Emiliano Martínez, took little satisfaction from forcing Tuchel to replace Saúl with Jorginho at half-time. The game was over as a contest four minutes into the second half, a dreadful backpass from Mings allowing Kovacic to score for the first time since December 2019.

In the end Chelsea cruised to a win that lifts them level with Manchester United at the top of the league. Callum Hudson-Odoi, making his first appearance of the season, acquitted himself well at right wing-back and it was no surprise when the final word went to Lukaku.