Whatever happens when Chelsea visit Aston Villa on Sunday evening, Thomas Tuchel is bound to be in more of a festive mood than he was last year. “I’m very confident that I will survive Christmas with my job this year,” Tuchel said, thinking back to Paris Saint-Germain axing him on Christmas Eve 12 months ago. “We are in a fine place. We are not happy with the results we had in the home games: Burnley, Everton and Manchester United. But we are confident. We are competitive.”
The German’s spirits were high after Chelsea set up a Carabao Cup semi-final against Tottenham by winning 2-0 at Brentford on Wednesday night. After a week of fretting over positive Covid tests, suddenly the air felt a little lighter. Tuchel had seen Chelsea knuckle down at the Brentford Community Stadium, even though the absence of nine senior players because of injuries and Covid led to three teenagers making their debuts. The question now is whether the European champions can put a difficult period behind them by reviving their faltering title challenge at Villa Park.
It will not be easy. Villa are improving under Steven Gerrard and won this fixture last season, although Gerrard will be absent on Sunday after testing positive for Covid. They are defensively sound and will back themselves to keep it tight against Chelsea, whose lack of ruthlessness has seen them fall six points behind Manchester City in the Premier League.
The hope for Tuchel is that some players who have been out with Covid will be back. The change in the quarantine period from 10 days to seven is a boost. Tuchel reported that Romelu Lukaku and Callum Hudson-Odoi could both be in contention against Villa, although there was less clarity about the status of Kai Havertz, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timo Werner.
“We have negative tests for Romelu and Callum,” Tuchel said. “Then we need to see. The guys have been ill, they had symptoms. I know I need to check how they are.”
These are still awkward times for Chelsea. They have seethed since the league rejected their request to postpone their game against Wolves last weekend. They had seven players in isolation – Jorginho was not risked after returning an inconclusive test, but he was cleared to return against Brentford – and only had four outfield players on the bench at Molineux.
Tuchel was angry after a goalless draw left Chelsea further off the pace in the title race. He had taken a risk by starting N’Golo Kanté, who had not played since limping off against Juventus on 23 November, and was not in a good mood before facing Brentford.
The question of player safety was still on Tuchel’s mind. He called himself irresponsible for playing Kanté against Wolves and insisted that the midfielder would not feature against Brentford. The Frenchman’s importance to Chelsea was too great; they could not afford to lose him to injury again.
Yet Kanté did not want a rest and convinced Tuchel to put him on the bench. He changed the game when he came on with 14 minutes left, taking control of midfield and starting the move that led to Pontus Jansson inadvertently giving Chelsea the lead in the 80th minute.
“It was nice to see that everyone was pushing to be involved,” Tuchel said. “N’Golo convinced me that he prefers to be on the bench. We agreed on that in discussions with the player. I’ve praised him so many times and of course he makes the difference because he is a very special player. I’ve said it 100 times and I will repeat it another 100 times, there are no more words: it’s outstanding quality that would help every team in the world.”
It had turned into a productive evening. The young trio of Xavier Simons, Jude Soonsup-Bell and Harvey Vale all enjoyed their first taste of senior football and could be part of the squad against Villa. Trevoh Chalobah, another academy product, was excellent in defence. Mateo Kovacic, who had been out since October, got some valuable minutes. Even the much-maligned Saúl Ñíguez did well in central midfield.
This was a reminder that Chelsea still have plenty of strength in depth. Tuchel was able to change the game by bringing on Reece James, Jorginho, Kanté, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic in the second half. James fired in the cross that led to Jansson’s own goal and Pulisic won the penalty that allowed Jorginho to make it 2-0.
Chelsea, who have won three of their last eight league games, need to build on that lively second half. They need to be more focused in defence and incisive in attack. They must adjust if Lukaku, Werner and Havertz are not ready to start against Villa. Pulisic, who was ineffective through the middle when Chelsea drew with Everton and Wolves, must step up if he is asked to lead the line again.
“Is that his very best position where he feels most comfortable?” Tuchel asked. “Maybe not, but he’s very positive about it and he’s fighting for his confidence. And while he’s fighting we’re supporting him.”
The messages were positive. Tuchel, who is unsure if Andreas Christensen and Hakim Ziyech will shake off their injuries, sees a group who are ready to fight through the uncertainty caused by Covid. “It’s the same situation for us as for everyone else and we have concerns,” he said. “We are not just football players and coaches, we are also fathers and family members. We have doubts and fears, which is not nice.
“Still we are privileged to do what we love the most: to be involved in football. I’m very impressed how the team takes it. We will arrive at Aston Villa with full commitment to the competition.”
Tuchel is ready. This is his first experience of football on Boxing Day and he cannot wait. “I am happy to be involved,” Tuchel said, but he still wants more. He knows that Chelsea cannot afford to slip up again. Nothing but victory will do if they want to win the league.