Reece James return, Christopher Nkunku injury – How Chelsea can line up after international break

By Staff

It is three months on since the last international break and Chelsea have been typically Chelsea. 24 games played, 13 wins, three draws, eight losses, 47 goals scored and 37 conceded. One cup final reached, another semi-final incoming.

Mauricio Pochettino has come under severe pressure on at least four separate occasions – after the 2-0 defeat to Everton, first leg loss to Middlesbrough in the Carabao Cup, post Wolves 4-2 demolition, and the Carabao Cup final extra time shambles. His side are still just about clinging on to meeting some expectations though.

Chelsea have excelled in the domestic cup competitions, though of the 24 matches since November five have been against lower league opposition and another was at home to relegation-fodder Sheffield United. They have beaten Brighton, Newcastle twice, drawn to Aston Villa and won at Villa Park too, lost to Liverpool but put them to the test across 120 minutes four weeks later and held Manchester City to a draw at the Etihad Stadium.

It has been a period that fully encapsulates the ups and downs of this young side. The positives and negatives of it, the brilliance and the frustrations. It is fitting that the final showing before bidding domestic action farewell for two weeks was 45 minutes of comedic carnage at Stamford Bridge.

Dwell too long on the 4-2 win over Leicester and there are simultaneously ugly remaining truths as well as flashes of serious positivity. Look too close and there is beauty and the beast.

Pochettino will direct watchers to the better parts – and there are plenty – but his detracters have a lot of ammunition to fire back – and there is plenty. In a fortnight, after the last set of international fixtures for the season, he will not be able to rely on the goodwill of reaching Wembley again or overcoming a Newcastle side that look more like Steve Bruce’s side than one ready to battle in the Champions League.

READ MORE: Raheem Sterling woeful, Cole Palmer superb – Chelsea player ratings vs Leicester in FA Cup win

READ MORE: Every word Mauricio Pochettino said on Raheem Sterling boos, Mudryk substitution and Wembley

He won’t have much to work with back at Cobham, either. Raheem Sterling and injured players aside, most of the Blues squad will be away in far-flung corners of the planet – and Burton – or working towards some upcoming competition.

When they return there will be an expectation, yet again, of kicking on. Chelsea fans are not the forgiving type and Pochettino lacks the good faith from supporters to rely on what has been done so far. His side are within reach of the top seven and possibly even Manchester United in sixth.

It will not be an easy ride to get there but the gap to eighth is just three points and they hold a game in hand. They can overtake West Ham if both matches held bring three points as well. 11 games to go in the league and any shred of consistency will see them rise in the coming weeks.

Fortunately, the signs of a team have started to show. The chosen XI now has a group of regulars who are all in form and earning their place. Djordje Petrovic is the No.1 and Robert Sanchez is doing nothing to change that in his cup outings, instead bringing a sense of panic rather than composure.

Malo Gusto is a right-back good enough to rival Reece James, not just deputise for him. Trevoh Chalobah has returned to first-team football well despite not playing a competitive game for over eight months. He and Axel Disasi have been shaky, but are forming a relationship of sorts in a young defence.

Ben Chilwell is first choice at left-back but hasn’t hit the form or fitness of his peak yet. Enzo Fernandez has struggled to match the recent under-the-radar progress of Moises Caicedo but is integral moving forward. Caicedo’s mistakes reel is still large but his highlights are plentiful and mightily impressive. Conor Gallagher is as good as ever.

Cole Palmer has been the best-performing attacker in a Chelsea shirt since Eden Hazard – and that’s no exaggeration – with Nicolas Jackson truly hitting his stride thanks to three goals and an assist in four matches. The elements to his game being developed over the course of the season are now on show game-by-game.

Raheem Sterling is a regular if not massively deserving of his place. of late There will be question marks over how he responds to widespread criticism and booing after the break – one he will spend at the Surrey-based training centre after being left out of Gareth Southgate’s England squad again.

Mykhailo Mudryk in a central role and also when used as an impact substitute has brought flashes of genuine brilliance as he settles down. Noni Madueke provided reason to suggest he is also keen to take a spot in frontline.

This is the positive spin on a squad still lacking total cohesion and nous to see out a match from even the most commanding of positions. The core is now defined at Chelsea and showing glimpses of being a together unit. The boost is that come March 30 and the welcoming home fixture with Burnley – who will be without new superstar David Datro Fofana due to loan rules – Chelsea might be even stronger.

Any injuries or knocks picked up during the break aside, Chelsea could be bringing James back in the coming weeks as he looks to build fitness once again. He has been training on the grass and will be aiming to appear sooner rather than later.

Thiago Silva will be well-rested during the break as well. He hasn’t played since February 12 despite being available for the past month. It’s far too soon for Wesley Fofana, but Christopher Nkunku will have another few weeks to plot his own way back.

The Frenchman is sidelined with another setback but is another who will be eyeing up the final months with cautious optimism. It’s tough to know how soon he will be integrated again, and Chelsea’s history with injury as well as the approach to developing match sharpness urges time being given. But the goal will be to have him appear in a squad not relying on his impact as has been the case for his premature games so far.

Levi Colwill and Benoit Badiashile have also been in and out of the treatment room recently but should be in contention in 12 days time. Here’s how Chelsea might line-up.

Possible Chelsea XI after the international break: Petrovic; Gusto, Chalobah, Colwill; Chilwell; Gallagher, Caicedo, Chukwuemeka; Palmer, Jackson, Mudryk.

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