Chelsea will play a lot worse than this and win. They certainly should - but only if they have a centre-forward and that is the enduring, puzzling £1 billion question at the club that has spent so much and signed so many in the transfer market and yet still lacks that most fundamental of players: a goal-scorer.
The other is why they are even considering selling Conor Gallagher. Yes, the midfielder is a homegrown academy player whose substantial transfer fee – if he is sold – would be banked as pure profit and offset against other spending but on this evidence he is utterly indispensable.
The 23-year-old captain set the impressively relentless press and hunted down Aston Villa, with Clement Lenglet clearly and rightly targeted as a weak link in defence, but it was Chelsea’s lack of a cutting edge – and some fine goalkeeping from Emiliano Martinez – which led to this tie ending goalless, forcing a replay back at Villa Park for a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
“We just weren’t clinical enough,” lamented Mauricio Pochettino and the Chelsea head coach was absolutely right. “But we created chances and we need to keep believing and now we move on,” he added. Pressed on whether he needs another striker, Pochettino responded: “Of course we did not score but we created chances. I trust and believe in our players, for sure.”
But then what else could he say? Chelsea have Nicolas Jackson at the African Cup of Nations and Christopher Nkunku is injured again but they still so obviously need another centre-forward. Consideration has been given to making a move for Villa’s Jhon Duran but he is injured, with Unai Emery already clear that he does not want him to leave. Even so the forward may have irritated Villa fans by congratulating his fellow Colombian Mayra Ramirez on social media on her move to Chelsea. That appeared to be pointed.
And then there is the Armando Broja conundrum. The 22-year-old academy product is surplus to requirements and up for sale although quite how Chelsea hope to realise a £50 million valuation for him, given he can only earn a place on their bench despite other forwards being missing, is a wildly ambitious mystery.
Broja came on late against Villa but did not get a chance. Instead the main culprit was the player tasked with featuring as the central striker: Cole Palmer. No-one doubts the impact and worth of Palmer since his £42.5 million move from Manchester City, and he is Chelsea’s top-scorer this season, but he is simply not a number nine. And it showed.
In a first-half bookended by chances for Villa’s Youri Tielemans the main theme was Chelsea’s wastefulness and Martinez’s defiance. “Amazing,” Emery said of his goalkeeper. “He saved us two or three times… Emiliano today, we needed him. And really he played like he is – number one.”
He did. But he was helped by Chelsea’s lack of conviction; by the absence of the kind of killer instinct that makes the difference. It is one thing scoring six against a Championship side in Middlesbrough to earn a place in the Carabao Cup semi-final, but it is another to take your chances against such as well-drilled, organised, dangerous team as Villa. So when the chances come they have to be taken.
Three times Chelsea should have scored in the first-half. Twice Noni Madueke was thwarted, once by Martinez with an outstretched leg, the other by shooting into the goalkeeper’s body from close-range, but it was Palmer who spurned the best chance. Just as he did in the second-half.
‘Cold Palmer’? Not on this evidence as the Gallagher-led press forced another mistake by Lenglet, allowing Palmer to intercept the centre-half’s poor pass inside Villa’s penalty area. He had to score. Instead he lacked conviction and Martinez again blocked with his legs.
Then, in the second-half, there was an even more glaring miss as Martinez’s wayward pass struck Palmer who brought the ball down. He had time and space but appeared to panic and scuffed his attempt to control turning it into a weak shot that trickled easily to a relieved Martinez. That was poor.
So despite Pochettino’s apparent faith it would be no surprise if he shows this performance as Exhibit A when it comes to evidence as to what he requires to make Chelsea better. He is backed by the further evidence of the past few weeks that they are improving. Can he be backed in the final days of the January transfer window? It might just make the difference for a team that is beginning to get so many of its components right.
And Villa? They have not played since Jan 14 and that showed at times. They will also point to two smart saves they forced from Chelsea goalkeeper Djordje Petrovic, especially from Matty Cash, but they will certainly be the happier of the two sides with the goalless result.