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Thomas Tuchel feels festive even as Chelsea look to face harsh winter | Chelsea

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WWhatever happens when Chelsea visit Aston Villa on Sunday night, Thomas Tuchel is bound to be in a more festive mood than he was last year. “I am very confident that I will survive Christmas with my job this year,” said Tuchel, thinking back to Paris Saint-Germain having knocked him out on Christmas Eve 12 months ago. “We are in a beautiful place. We are not happy with the results we have achieved in the home games: Burnley, Everton and Manchester United. But we are confident. We are competitive.

The German’s morale was good after Chelsea set up a Carabao Cup semi-final against Tottenham with a 2-0 win at Brentford on Wednesday night. After a week of worrying about positive Covid tests, the air suddenly felt a little lighter. Tuchel had seen Chelsea collapse at Brentford Community Stadium, although the absence of nine senior players due to injuries and Covid led to three teenagers making their debuts. The question now is whether the European champions can end a rough patch by resuming their faltering title challenge at Villa Park.

It won’t be easy. Villa is improving under Steven Gerrard and won that game last season, although Gerrard will be out on Sunday after testing positive for Covid. They are strong defensively and will support each other to stay tight against Chelsea, whose lack of cruelty has caused them to fall six points behind Manchester City in the Premier League.

The hope for Tuchel is that some players who dated Covid will be back. Changing the quarantine period from 10 days to seven days is a boost. Tuchel reported that Romelu Lukaku and Callum Hudson-Odoi could both be in contention against Villa, although the status of Kai Havertz, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timo Werner is less clear.

“We have negative tests for Romelu and Callum,” Tuchel said. “Then we have to see. The guys got sick, they had symptoms. I know I have to check out how they are.

These are still difficult times for Chelsea. They have been seething since the league rejected their request to postpone their game against Wolves last weekend. They had seven lone players – Jorginho took no chances after making an inconclusive test, but was cleared to return against Brentford – and only had four outfielders on the bench at Molineux.

Tuchel was angry after a goalless draw left Chelsea further in the title race. He had taken a risk pitching N’Golo Kanté, who hadn’t played since losing to Juventus on November 23, and was not in a good mood before facing Brentford.

The issue of player safety was still on Tuchel’s head. He called himself irresponsible for playing Kanté against Wolves and insisted the midfielder would not appear against Brentford. The importance of the French for Chelsea was too great; they couldn’t afford to lose him again to injury.

Yet Kanté did not want a rest and convinced Tuchel to put him on the bench. He was a game-changer when he came on 14 minutes to go, taking control of the midfield and starting the movement that led Pontus Jansson to inadvertently give Chelsea the lead in the 80th minute.

“It was nice to see everyone pushing to get involved,” Tuchel said. “N’Golo convinced me that he prefers to be on the bench. We agreed on this during discussions with the player. I have congratulated him so many times and of course he makes the difference because he is a very special player. I have said it 100 times and I will say it again 100 times, there are no more words: it is an exceptional quality that would help all the teams in the world.

Thomas Tuchel feels festive even as Chelsea look to face harsh winter |  Chelsea

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N’Golo Kanté (left) runs to celebrate with his teammates after the home side goal scored by Pontus Jansson of Brentford. Photograph: Dave Shopland / Shutterstock

It had become a productive evening. The young trio of Xavier Simons, Jude Soonsup-Bell and Harvey Vale have all enjoyed their first taste of senior football and could make the squad against Villa. Trevoh Chalobah, another academy product, has been excellent in defense. Mateo Kovacic, absent since October, got precious minutes. Even the much-maligned Saúl Ñíguez did well in the central midfielder.

It was a reminder that Chelsea still have a lot of strength at depth. Tuchel was able to change the situation by bringing in Reece James, Jorginho, Kanté, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic in the second half. James shot in the center which led to the goal against his own Jansson side and Pulisic won the penalty which put Jorginho up to 2-0.

Chelsea, who have won three of their last eight league games, need to build on this lively second half. They must be more concentrated in defense and incisive in attack. They have to adapt if Lukaku, Werner and Havertz aren’t ready to debut against Villa. Pulisic, who was ineffective in the middle when Chelsea drew Everton and Wolves, must step in if he is asked to lead the line again.

“Is this his 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 fights, we support him.

The messages were positive. Tuchel, who is unsure whether Andreas Christensen and Hakim Ziyech will get rid of their injuries, sees a group ready to fight the uncertainty caused by Covid. “It’s the same situation for us as it is for everyone and we have concerns,” he said. “We’re not just soccer players and coaches, we’re also fathers and family. We have doubts and fears, which is not pleasant.

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“We always have the privilege of doing what we love the most: being involved in football. I am very impressed with the way the team is taking it. We will arrive at Aston Villa with full commitment to competition.

Tuchel is ready. It’s his first experience of football on Boxing Day and he can’t wait. “I’m happy to be involved,” Tuchel said, but he always wants more. He knows Chelsea can no longer afford to slip. Nothing but victory will do if they want to win the league.

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