Chelsea supporters may find it a little hard to recall the final day of the 2020/21 Premier League campaign. What followed in Porto against Manchester City very much took precedent.
So here’s a quick refresher. The Blues were in the Midlands, Aston Villa to be precise. A win was needed to guarantee a place for Thomas Tuchel’s side in the top four. Fail to achieve that and Chelsea would need a favour from, of all clubs, Tottenham Hotspur.
The game didn’t go as planned. Former Blue Bertrand Traore put Villa ahead just before half time and shortly after the restart, Anwar El Ghazi converted from the penalty spot. Ben Chilwell did pull a goal back but it wasn’t enough, it didn’t give Chelsea what they needed.
Fortunately, Tottenham overcame Leicester City at the King Power and so the Blues’ top-four spot – and Champions League football – was secured even before Chelsea lifted the big-eared trophy in Portugal at the end of May.
The point of this history lesson is the following: Aston Villa can’t be underestimated when they visit Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Dean Smith’s side has the quality to claim a result if Chelsea are not in the right frame of mind.
And that can happen after an international break. Players are weary, both mentally and physically, from travelling across continents. Some may not even return to Chelsea’s training base at Cobham until Friday morning, barely 24 hours before the clash with Villa begins.
These are all factors Thomas Tuchel has to consider when picking his starting XI. There are also fitness concerns for the German to contend with.
Yet all being well, many of the positions within the side are easy to fill. Edouard Mendy, having produced an excellent display in the 1-1 draw against Liverpool last time out, will keep his place in the Chelsea goal.
Cesar Azpilicueta, fresh off captaining Spain for the first time, should be rested for this one and that would allow Trevoh Chalobah to start on the right of the back three. Antonio Rudiger will take his spot on the left.
Andreas Christensen has started Chelsea’s opening three Premier League games as Chelsea’s middle centre-back but, having had the best part of two weeks training at Cobham after his second-half cameo at Anfield, it’s time for Thiago Silva to be given a start in the top flight.
The wing-back positions remain up for grabs. With Reece James suspended after being sent off against Liverpool, Callum Hudson-Odoi should be handed a start on the right, even if it’s not his preferred role.
The academy graduate, who was denied a deadline day loan move to Borussia Dortmund, should take encouragement from Watford winger Ismaila Sarr, whose direct running and dribbling ability caused Villa left-back, Matt Targett, countless problems on the opening day of the campaign.
On the opposite flank, the battle between Chilwell and Marcos Alonso will continue. The Spaniard has started every game for the Blues so far this term but the England international deserves to make his first competitive appearance for club and country since the Champions League final.
There is much debate as to who starts in central midfield. N’Golo Kante is nursing an ankle injury that kept him out of France’s international fixtures, while Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic featured heavily in the World Cup Qualifiers for Italy and Croatia, respectively.
Saul Niguez, signed on loan from Atletico Madrid on deadline day, is available but it’s unlikely Tuchel throws him straight into the side. If they’re both fit, the double six is likely to consist of Jorginho and Kovacic.
Mason Mount will almost certainly start; the England international always does. And should the thigh scan undertaken by Romelu Lukaku this week show no sign of serious injury, it’s almost certain the Belgian will spearhead the Chelsea attack once more.
Who occupies the ‘left ten’ role is intriguing. Kai Havertz has suffered from flu over the international break and may not be 100% fit. Christian Pulisic, meanwhile, is unlikely to return to training until Friday after representing the U.S.
Hakim Ziyech is a strong contender having spent the international break training with Chelsea but you sense Tuchel may opt to go with Timo Werner, fresh off scoring in back-to-back games with Germany and, hopefully, with confidence flowing.
Predicted Chelsea side vs Aston Villa (3-4-3): Mendy; Chalobah, Silva, Rudiger; Hudson-Odoi, Kovacic, Jorginho, Chilwell; Mount, Lukaku, Werner