Covid-19, Premier League nil. That has been the story of the past 12-weeks or so when it comes to the beautiful game in England. Finally, though, we have returned, to the rapturous virtual applause of every football supporter in the land.
It was the turn of Chelsea supporters to get excited for the return of their beloved Blues and what a return they produced, winning a tightly-contested affair at Villa Park by two goals to one.
Chelsea’s goals, first by substitute Christian Pulisic and then by French Forward Olivier Giroud, moves them five points clear of the chasing-pack in the hunt for the Top 4.
Five key talking points have arisen from the performance of the Blues this afternoon, for you as a Chelsea supporter to deliberate, so if you will, read on.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is not a wide-man
Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s long-awaited return to action proved to be a bitter-sweet one, as the midfielder failed to have his usual robust impact on proceedings during the 90-minutes.
Allot can be said in the young Englishman’s defence, especially given the fact that he has just returned from 12-month injury lay-off.
He was however, surprisingly re-introduced to the Chelsea side in an unfamiliar wide-left position, with Frank Lampard looking for him to use his pace and power on the flank.
His performance though, left allot to be desired, with him only contributing 18 passes to his side’s endeavours, as well as having just the one attempt on goal, albeit a header, which left most supporters wishing Giroud had been the man coming in at the back post.
You can however, leave little blame at the players door in this instance, with the natural decision for most being that Mason Mount, who incidentally played the afternoon in number 10 role, being deployed out wide, as he has so often been during the Premier League campaign to date.
That opinion was vindicated when Lampard took the decision to remove Loftus-Cheek from the action and introduce Pulisic during the second-half, with the American wide-man making an immediate impact.
Chelsea’s Captain America picks up where he left off
That immediate impact was his unorthodox tap-in at the back-post of Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross to bring his side level.
His general play also signalled that he perhaps should’ve been on the pitch from the start as he made life more difficult for Aston Villa’s right hand-side, in particular right-back Ezri Konsa.
The decision for the American International to be on the bench was perhaps justified, as due to injury, he hadn’t featured since New Year’s Day.
He returned chomping at the bit however, with Lampard keen to highlight his players desire in his post-match interview with BBC Sport following the win.
"He was hungry. I know that and I felt for him, as I felt for the players with long-term injuries,” he said.
"He will start games for us, of course, and I think he's going to be a big player for us, not just in this run-in but going forward.”
Lampard also took the opportunity to highlight the circumstance in which Chelsea’s leveller arose, with Pulisic busting a gut to get to the back post to meet his captain’s cross.
He continued: “The ability he's got to arrive in the box, it's a big thing, I've spoken about it with him all season."
Olivier Giroud proves experience is key on big return to League action
One big debate that Lampard and his backroom team would’ve had ahead of their return to action was who would lead the line for the Blues at Villa Park.
They ultimately took the decision to deploy the man who was once described by former blue Eden Hazard as the best-target man in the world, Giroud.
The Frenchman’s chances in the league have been limited, with Sunday afternoons appearance being only his tenth of the campaign.
Frank’s decision would now be seen by many as the correct one, with Giroud pulling Villa’s centre-back pairing of Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause around for fun at times during the contest, most notably when drawing them both in, during the build-up to Chelsea’s equaliser, leaving room for his teammate Pulisic to pounce at the back-post.
He was also involved in the build-up to his own goal as well, exchanging passes with Mount before the midfielder played the ball out to Azpilicueta.
Giroud then received Azpilicueta’s ball back across the face of the penalty area, striking the ball in via a deflection, with his weaker right-foot.
The Frenchman has done much to suggest that he may be used from the start again, against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Thursday night.
Playing out from the back worked well
It is a tactic that has been often tried by Lampard’s side during the season, but rarely has it looked as accomplished and comfortable as it did this afternoon at Villa Park.
Centre-backs Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen passed the ball well from the base of the team and looked to find both Mateo Kovacic and N'golo Kante in the pockets of the midfield that they found themselves in during the 90 minutes.
They also looked to find both Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso with diagonal balls, as the full-backs went marauding forward on overlapping runs throughout the tie.
It has, to the trained eye anyway, been something that Lampard has focused on with his side during the extended break, with him looking to see his team transition from the defensive third into the attacking third, as quickly as possible, with incisive passing.
If they can replicate the sort of creativity shown during Sunday’s encounter against Villa, during their tie with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge, then they will have a greater chance of getting the positive result that they desperately crave to turn their Top 4 dreams into reality.
Christensen and Rudiger have also put their hands up to face the might of Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero on Thursday evening.
Captain Cesar proves his weight in Assists
Although he will be disappointed at his defences failure to keep a clean sheet once again, Lampard will be pleased at how his Captain, Cesar Azpilicueta led from the front on the return to competitive action.
This was of course the first time that Chelsea have played a competitive fixture behind closed doors.
It would’ve no doubt taken some getting used to by the Blues players on the pitch, especially with them not having the usual backing of their sublime away support.
Their captain, Azpilicueta, didn’t let the unusual surroundings affect his performance, with his usual high-tempo work up and down the right hand-side there for all to see.
His final ball was also sublime, with him laying on two assists for his teammates as they scored two goals in as many minutes to turn the game on its head and cement their place in the top 4.
The first of those assists was a whipped cross to the far post, whereas the second was a lateral ball back across the face of the penalty area, showing not only his varying passing ability, but also that his decision making is still world class.