Chelsea continued to find solace in the domestic cups after turning in a commanding performance in which goals from Connor Gallagher, Nicolas Jackson and Enzo Fernández secured a comfortable 3-1 win over Aston Villa on Wednesday, booking an FA Cup fifth-round tie with Leeds United.
Despite securing a place in this month’s Carabao Cup final, the Blues’ successive heavy Premier League defeats to Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers had heaped pressure on manager Mauricio Pochettino before the midweek trip to Villa Park. On one of their best nights of the season so far, however, Chelsea produced an eye-catching display to exploit a leggy Villa side whose only goal arrived via Moussa Diaby in injury-time, by which point the Blues had long since secured safe passage into the last 16.
Both sides looked to forge ahead in an open start to the game, but it was the visitors who achieved that aim after 11 minutes when a spring-loaded attack down the left flank culminated in Noni Madueke rolling the ball back for Gallagher to place a fine finish into Emiliano Martínez’s top corner. Before Villa could seriously contemplate how to find their way back into the game, Chelsea doubled their advantage as Jackson, back from Africa Cup of Nations duty with Senegal, expertly headed home a fine right-wing cross from Malo Gusto.
With Madueke in sensational form for the visitors, Villa were unable to focus solely on attacking, instead finding themselves repeatedly susceptible to lightning counterattacks. Fernández, meanwhile, was in imperious control both in and out of possession, aided and abetted by Gallagher and Moisés Caicedo in midfield, meaning the hosts never approached control of the outcome.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
The first half ended to a smattering of boos from the home support, but none inside Villa Park with any knowledge of the form book would have written off a second-half turnaround. Instead, the Blues forged further ahead before the hour mark when Fernández won and then sumptuously converted a 25-yard free kick that arced superbly into Martínez’s top corner.
Constantly mindful of Chelsea’s menace on the break, Villa were unable to sustain any kind of meaningful threat until the late stages of the game, with Álex Moreno heading over the hosts’ final faint chance of sparking an unlikely comeback before Diaby rolled in a calm effort via the inside of the post in added time. For the Blues, an increasingly unpredictable campaign had, against all odds, provided another unexpected night of cup bliss.
Everywhere he looked, Pochettino would have approved. Ceaseless running and endeavour underpinned the display throughout the team, but the return of Jackson from international duty, allied to one of Madueke’s best performances since arriving at Stamford Bridge and Cole Palmer’s roving danger, transformed Chelsea’s attack and provided a cutting edge that was too sharp for Villa to handle. In midfield, the partnership of Fernández and Caicedo also burned brightly, providing an impenetrable shield for a Blues defence that was rarely troubled.
In a season in which off-nights and pratfalls have always lurked around the corner, the Blues put together one of their most complete performances to date, without a flaw in sight — although losing a clean sheet in injury time was as bad as it got.
Manager rating out of 10
8 — Taunted by Wolves fans on Sunday about the spectre of impending unemployment, Pochettino inspired his side to the perfect riposte against the odds. From the prematch huddle, it was clear that Chelsea were fired up, and every player on the field put in an almighty shift for their gaffer. In tactical terms, Pochettino’s messages were heard loud and clear, and the timing of the goals allowed the Argentinian to calmly execute his game plan: overrun, then contain and counter.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best, players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Djordje Petrovic, 7 — Alive and alert with two routine saves as Villa pressed for a quickfire leveller, but otherwise faced nothing of note until he had to flick John McGinn’s shot over in first-half stoppage time. Booked for time wasting as the Blues managed the second period astutely, until Diaby’s last-action consolation.
DF Malo Gusto, 8 — Caught the eye throughout with his energy on the right flank. Never in any danger defensively and always willing to lend support in attack, most notably when he slung in a fine assist for Jackson to double the Blues’ lead.
DF Axel Disasi, 7 — A change of defensive partner as Benoit Badiashile replaced Thiago Silva, but Disasi was unperturbed. Untroubled in the air and calm on the deck, the two Frenchmen were expertly shielded by their midfield enforcers throughout — although he did make one key late block to deny McGinn.
DF Benoit Badiashile, 7 — Like Disasi, could count the benefits of the spadework put in by Caicedo and Fernández, and rarely looked flustered as a result — even if he was occasionally wasteful with forward balls.
DF Ben Chilwell, 7 — Named captain with Silva confined to the bench. Rose to the challenge of shackling the in-form Leon Bailey in a defensive sense, and always looked to get forward to lend his support in attack.
MF Conor Gallagher, 8 — Steered in a brilliant first-time finish to break the deadlock, giving Martínez no chance with his effort into the top corner. The headline moment in a performance otherwise built on sweat-soaked endeavour and insightful reading of the play.
MF Moises Caicedo, 8 — Guts and glory in equal measure. A constant comfort blanket for his defence and an astute interchangeability with Fernández laid the foundations for Chelsea’s unexpectedly straightforward progress.
MF Enzo Fernández, 9 — Key role in Gallagher’s opener, first hustling Boubacar Kamara down an alley and then sparking the attack, later followed by a sensational free kick. His name-pointing celebration — not to mention a sublime all-round display — served a reminder of his enormous talent.
FW Noni Madueke, 8 — A terror for the Villa defence throughout, embarking on a number of high-speed, slaloming runs into dangerous areas. Provided much of the energy and ambition so lacking in the Blues’ attack of late.
FW Nicolas Jackson, 8 — Making his first start since December following Senegal’s AFCON exit, the 22-year-old added real menace to Chelsea’s attack, playing a part in the first and clinically nodding in their second. Also put in an admirable defensive shift.
FW Cole Palmer, 7 — Constantly fell below the hosts’ radar, popping up all over the forward line and giving the Villa defence a permanent headache. Will rue his missed opportunities to get on the scoresheet, but can be happy with his shift.
FW Raheem Sterling, N/R — Handed the final 15 minutes in place of the livewire Madueke, by which point his job was largely one of defensive backup.
DF Thiago Silva, N/R — Dropped to the bench after the Blues’ recent flood of concessions, the veteran entered the fray for the final 10 minutes to close out the win.
DF Alfie Gilchrist, N/R — The young boyhood Blue continued his education with a taste of a the last moments of a huge win.
FW Christopher Nkunku, N/R — Dropped for the returning Jackson, but handed a late cameo for the closing exchanges.