Chelsea boosted by return of ‘difference-maker’ but cautious comeback planned

Ready to go: Christopher Nkunku has trained with Chelsea as his return looms (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

After Christopher Nkunku returned to first-team training this week, the £52million summer signing is closing in on a long-awaited competitive debut for Chelsea.

Nkunku has missed the first three months of the season with a knee injury, but is said to have looked sharp in training. Mauricio Pochettino is due to provide an update on Friday afternoon on whether the forward will be in his squad for the Blues’ trip to Newcastle on Saturday.

Nkunku is unlikely to be thrown straight in with a start at St James’ Park, but Pochettino knows he could be a difference-maker from the bench as he is eased back to full fitness.

His absence has been keenly felt by Chelsea, who have missed his goals. There was a collective sharp intake of breath in pre-season when Nkunku went down under challenge from Borussia Dortmund defender Mats Hummels on a dreadful pitch in Chicago, which had hosted an Ed Sheeran concert a few days before.

Scans revealed that he needed surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee and his injury was a major blow on the eve of the new season. Before his injury, Nkunku had looked ready-made to become a Stamford Bridge star.

The 26-year-old France international impressed during pre-season, scoring three goals in five appearances playing on the wing, up front and as a No10.

Nkunku showed his quality with an exciting run of form during pre-season in the USA (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

He had been sharp in the box, creative, dangerous running in behind defences and clinical. His displays only added to the excitement around someone who was named Bundesliga player of the season in 2021-22.

Boss Pochettino has often brought up his absence when his team have dropped points. After losing 2-0 to Brentford last month, the Argentine said: “He is a player that can provide goals — and I think we are missing goals.”

Chelsea have since scored eight in two matches: in a 4-1 win at Tottenham and a 4-4 home draw with Manchester City before the international break.

Cole Palmer has helped get Chelsea’s attack firing, and it is exciting to think how the two versatile forwards will link up, with Raheem Sterling and Conor Gallagher also excelling.

Nicolas Jackson scored a hat-trick at Spurs and scored again against City, but he could be the player to make way when Nkunku is ready. Jackson has struggled against teams that defend deep, a problem Nkunku could help solve.

“Cole Palmer has helped get Chelsea’s attack firing, and it is exciting to think how he will link up with Nkunku”

Unlike an inexperienced Jackson, Nkunku is unlikely to be fazed by the pressure at Chelsea, having made nearly 300 top-fight appearances at Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig.

Chelsea will follow a similar plan that eased Reece James back after his hamstring injury. The Blues captain initially returned with two substitute appearances and has not completed 90 minutes in three starts since.

Chelsea’s revamped medical structure has faced criticism, with the Blues having one of the worst injury records in the Premier League over the past year. But there are signs that problems are easing, with midfielder Romeo Lavia and Carney Chukwuemeka also due to return soon.

Levi Colwill had to withdraw from the England squad due to a shoulder injury but is fit for Saturday, as is Malo Gusto after recovering from a knee issue. It leaves just Ben Chilwell, Trevoh Chalobah and Wesley Fofana as long-term absentees ahead of a trip to a Newcastle side facing their own injury crisis.

Chelsea are 10 points off the top four, and Saturday’s game is important in their bid to get back in the Champions League race.

The Blues will rightly be cautious with Nkunku, but his impending return is a major boost.


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