LONDON -- Kepa Arrizabalaga proved to be Chelsea's savior in the EFL Cup fourth round as he made several impressive saves in normal time and added one in the penalty shootout to take Thomas Tuchel's side past a much-rotated Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge.
With a potential starting spot up for grabs -- at least for the weekend's clash with Manchester City -- Kepa discovered the shot-stopping form that has so often eluded him since his world record move from Athletic Bilbao more than three years ago on a night where those ahead of him were not always at their very best.
Timo Werner's smart header midway through the second half seemed to be sending Chelsea to round four but a youthful Villa side pulled them back in impressive fashion, scoring the first open-play goal the Blues have conceded this season with a fine header from Cameron Archer. Ultimately the hosts would emerge victorious from 12 yards out, Reece James thundering his penalty high into the net to earn them a 4-3 penalty shootout victory.
Though it would be fair to question just how valuable progress in this competition is for Tuchel -- the last Premier League side to win the Champions League had to field a youth team in a 2019 quarter-final that kicked off 24 hours before their Club World Cup semi-final in Qatar -- he did not scrimp on the star power at Stamford Bridge. N'Golo Kante captained a side that included the world's most expensive goalkeeper, a £50 million left wing back and two of the marquee signings of their 2020 spending spree. When he was searching for a late winner Romelu Lukaku was called from the bench.
Such is the reality of having a squad two or more deep with internationals in every position. Equally Tuchel having largely settled on a first choice XI means that many of those who did enter the fray looked rather too rusty to enhance their chances of featuring on the biggest occasions.
A generous assessment of the first half might have been that it was low on quality -- Tuchel in particular seemed exasperated early on by the loose play in the build up of Ben Chilwell and Ruben Loftus Cheek as Chelsea struggled to get going down the left -- but it was Villa who would have felt that they deserved to lead at the break. The 19-year-old striker Archer showed shrewd timing to twice puncture Chelsea's defensive line but on both occasions was denied by the quick feet of Kepa Arrizabalaga in the Stamford Bridge goal.
The world's most expensive goalkeeper has not often come to the rescue of those ahead of him but this was a morale-boosting display timed at just the right moment. Edouard Mendy is in a race against time to be available for Saturday's game against Manchester City. If he is fit he will surely play but equally Kepa might feel that Wednesday night and against Tottenham last weekend he did all he could to introduce some real competition between the Stamford Bridge sticks.
Not everyone in Chelsea blue was quite so impressive. Game two for Saul against Aston Villa was in danger of being as disappointing as his first, too many heavy touches and runs that suggested he might not yet be on the same wavelength as his new teammates after so many years under Diego Simeone. In his defense Thomas Tuchel asked a great deal of his new signing in tactical terms. In possession the Spaniard was asked to push up to serve on the left side of Chelsea's three-man attack. As soon as the visitors got the ball back, however, he was swiftly dropping in alongside Kante and Loftus-Cheek to buttress the midfield pivot.
It is not exactly a role that is completely unique to him at Stamford Bridge, Mason Mount does the same job off the right with real expertise and it was perhaps no surprise to see him introduced at the interval with Kante withdrawn to preserve him for Saturday's game against Manchester City.
Mount's introduction rather encouraged Tuchel to further experiment with his system, which took on the look of a 3-1-4-2 with Loftus-Cheek, who had for so long seemed destined to thrive as a number 10, now asked to shield and distribute from deep. It worked in almost every facet. Loftus-Cheek certainly won his coach's admiration for a thundering tackle on Emiiliano Buendia just after the Blues' opener.
Further forward Callum Hudson-Odoi and Chilwell were bombing up the pitch from wing back with greater vigor, stretching a Villa back four that were offered little aid by those ahead of them. James, perhaps the outstanding performer in a Blue shirt, delivered what looked to be the game's killer moment with a cross planted into the tightest of gaps between Villa's center backs.
Chelsea and Werner might have had more. Well-placed in the box he dragged wide of Jed Steer's box, perhaps a more difficult chance than the header he had scored moments earlier. With Werner, one of those rare players who looks more convincing 30 yards from goal than three, it can be hard to know.
That profligacy was punished. It takes something quite special to beat the Chelsea defense on any night -- and indeed Kepa on this one -- and that was what Matt Cash delivered. Not for nothing have the traveling fans now taken to calling him the "Polish Cafu." His delivery from the right flank was worthy of the great man and Archer's header was the sort any Brazilian striker would have been proud of.
Lukaku's late introduction offered Chelsea the impetus in the game's closing minutes as he did to Villa's reserve defense what he had done to their seniors a few days earlier, albeit without the finishing touch. He was convinced he should have had at least one penalty and he might have had a case when felled by Kortney Hause. Moments before full time Trevor Chalobah's header was blocked on its path to goal by a desperate Villa defense as they battled to take it to penalties.
There it was Ashley Young and Marvelous Nakamaba who cost Villa passage to the fourth round, Kepa diving smartly to his left to cap what had been an outstanding night for the Spaniard.