All attention was on Romelu Lukaku as Chelsea returned to winning ways with their 3-1 victory against Aston Villa.
The Belgian striker came off the bench and scored his first goal in the league since his brace against Villa back on September 11, and the striker is expected to play a key part as Chelsea look to work their way back into contention for the title.
Boxing Day brought another festive gift for Thomas Tuchel’s side who have fallen six points off Manchester City after a tricky month of injuries and Covid-related absences – with the return of Callum Hudson-Odoi.
Romelu Lukaku scored on his return as Chelsea beat Aston Villa 3-1 on Boxing Day
Callum Hudson-Odoi also played a key role on his return, contributing to all three goals
Life at Stamford Bridge looked to be coming to an end for the 21-year-old just four months ago but his performance at Villa Park showed why manager Thomas Tuchel has given him more chances this season.
Hudson-Odoi, without scoring, arguably played the biggest part in Chelsea’s victory as he played his part in all three goals, on his return to the starting line-up after missing the draws against Everton and Wolves due to a positive Covid test.
He first won the penalty which allowed Jorginho to level the score after Reece James had given Villa the lead by putting the ball into the back of his own net.
Hudson-Odoi first won the penalty which allowed Jorginho to level the scoring at Villa Park
The winger assisted Lukaku’s goal before playing the Belgian through in the build-up for the penalty for Chelsea’s third
He then produced a stunning cross which met the head of Lukaku to put Chelsea ahead before playing a perfect through ball into the path of the Belgian who was fouled by Ezri Konsa – allowing Jorginho to tuck away his second from the spot.
It was a display which Tuchel described as ‘outstanding’ after the final whistle was blown. The German said: ‘Hudson-Odoi was outstanding today, one of his very best performances. We were in doubt he can play one half, but he played 90 minutes.
‘I think he was brilliant today and we forced him. Normally it was clear that he plays one half to a maximum of 60 minutes.’
He then went on to add: ‘That was a big game, a very important game from him. We took a kind of a risk here because he just came back from Covid.’
Tuchel’s words will have been music to the ears of Hudson-Odoi, who hasn’t always found it so easy under the German who has given him some tough love. Though it’s fair to say even before Tuchel’s arrival, he was seen as a player who had shown plenty of potential without particularly delivering on the promise.
The 21-year-old came close to leaving Chelsea in the summer until Tuchel blocked a potential move. Hudson-Odoi had been open to a loan spell at Borussia Dortmund, given that he would likely feature in the Champions League for the Bundesliga side.
Hudson-Odoi struggled to win the trust of Thomas Tuchel when the German first arrived
He came on at half-time against Southampton in February and lasted just 31 minutes before he was replaced
Hudson-Odoi (centre) also has had to play out of position as a right wing-back
Hudson-Odoi was coming off his toughest campaign at Stamford Bridge, making just ten starts and with questions raised about his future following Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Southampton in February.
Brought on at half-time in place of Tammy Abraham, Tuchel took him off with 14 minutes to go with Hakim Ziyech taking his place in attack.
‘I was not happy with his attitude, energy and counter-pressing,’ Tuchel said. ‘In a game where it was not easy to create chances, you need to rely on counter-pressing to force errors to get the second ball and get the easy chance.
‘And for that, you need to be totally on and sharp for counter-pressing and I did not feel this with Callum today.
‘He missed some opportunities for counter-pressing and lost some easy balls and I had the feeling he was never really in the game.
‘You know I trust him a lot as he plays every game for us, but today I was close to him and… I do not know, maybe it was unfair, but I did not get the normal feeling with him today that he can be decisive.’
When he did play under Tuchel, it was normally as a right wing-back, something which Hudson-Odoi admitted to talkSport he thought was a ‘joke’ from the manager when he was first informed of the decision.
Juventus last month was the first time he’s started seven straight games in his career
‘Was it always fair to play him as a right wing-back? No, maybe not,’ Tuchel has recently admitted. ‘But he had to take this for the team and he did – and was always positive and showed the right spirit.’
The decision to keep Hudson-Odoi has paid dividends for Tuchel and the player is finally lighting it up for Chelsea this season and playing more regularly in his natural position on the left side of their attack.
A combination of injuries and drop in form for key players like Timo Werner and Kai Havertz presented opportunities which were initially absent, and he has grabbed the bull by the horns when presented the chance – repaying the faith of the Chelsea manager with some top performances.
He is finally playing in his favoured left side of attack position and has been the most impressive of all the players who have been given a chance at that role so far this campaign.
His ability to be dangerous when attacking and disciplined when defending has won over Tuchel who is rewarding him with more game time.
Tuchel said Hudson-Odoi’s display at Villa was ‘outstanding’ and ‘one of his best’ for Chelsea
Chelsea’s 4-0 thumping of Juventus last month was his seventh straight start – the most he’s ever had in his entire career, and it was befitting that he crowned it off with a memorable performance against the Italian giants.
His fitness and decision making has hampered him in the past, but he’s now improved in both aspects and is reaping the reward for the hard yards he has put in since Tuchel’s arrived.
One area which could still do improving is the numbers he registers in terms of goals and assists. This season he has contributed two goals and three assists in all competitions but in his 115 Chelsea appearances he has netted 15 times – just four in the Premier League.
But the fact he has already started eight league games this season – two less than last season – shows that his contribution as a whole is impressing his manager.
If Hudson-Odoi can keep up the performances like the one he displayed at Aston Villa on Boxing Day, he could be just as important as Lukaku if Chelsea are able to work their way back into a position to challenge for the Premier League title.