The Premier League is back!
So far, the opening two fixtures have demonstrated that normal service has been resumed; Sheffield United still have a defence as solid as any in the league, Manchester City’s attack is as devastating as ever, and David Luiz is still extremely error-prone.
Taking that into consideration, Chelsea will be looking at their first clash back, away to Aston Villa on Sunday, as a must-win in their search for Champions League football next season.
The absence of a packed Villa Park may well play nicely into the Blues’ hands, but Frank Lampard will have been keen to stress that nothing is a certainty in this league, especially considering Villa are battling against an immediate return to the Championship.
Whilst Lampard will be glad the likes of Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic and N’Golo Kante have been able to recover from injury issues and are now fit for the restart, there may be a lingering feeling of frustration around the camp as Chelsea were finally regaining their early season form, demonstrated in the FA Cup victory over Liverpool and the 4-0 drubbing of Everton, right before the pause.
That being said, it’s crucial that Chelsea hit the ground running in the resumption as just eight points separate the Blues in fourth and Arsenal in ninth.
With nine games to go, the race for Champions League football next season promises to be enthralling and one of particular intrigue.
Chelsea’s restart preparation
Ever since Step One of the return to training protocol was introduced on 19 May, the Blues have ramped up their preparations for the first game back, with the initial focus set solely on regaining fitness levels, and slowly moving into technical, group work in recent weeks.
Over the past week and a half, match fitness has been viewed a priority by Frank Lampard and the Chelsea coaching team, with the in-house game held at Stamford Bridge on 6 June the first of three 11v11 games played.
A friendly against Reading was won 1-0, with a goal from Pedro proving the difference, before QPR were thumped 7-1 at the Bridge last weekend.
Lampard’s thoughts ahead of the restart
In his first campaign in a top league, Lampard has performed admirably, and the aim of achieving a top-four finish is well within his grasp.
The mood in the Chelsea camp has been said to have been one of positivity and excitement, with the side almost with a clean bill of health.
Minor injuries to Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James have been managed and it’s expected that Lampard will have a full set of players to choose from against Aston Villa, including Kante, who had missed early training due to health and safety concerns.
Extra care over these bizarre circumstances has been taken at the club, and Lampard has said “the transition from non-contact to contact was good” and claimed, “the players are getting fitter and we hope come Aston Villa we will be ready to go, with the mindset and physical side of it to take on the games which are going to come thick and fast”.
Player to watch - Mateo Kovacic
Arguably Chelsea’s most influential player this season, and certainly the most improved from last year, Mateo Kovacic, has come on leaps and bounds under Lampard, and is finally living up to his nametag as Luka Modric’s replacement for Croatia.
Under Maurizio Sarri, he was ill-managed, often dragged off after exactly 60 minutes, and overall he struggled to adapt to the league. However, following his permanent transfer from Real Madrid he has excelled; cementing his place in Lampard’s midfield.
This year, his 3.6 completed dribbles P90 ranks first in the Chelsea squad, and he completes 9.8 progressive passes P90 with an incredible 86.9% accuracy, which betters the likes of Frenkie de Jong’s 81.8% and Thiago Alcantara’s 86.6%.
His 2.4 tackles won + interceptions P90 represent average numbers, but it’s clear that Jorginho and/or Kante are the defensive midfielders, whereas Kovacic’s role is one that is crucial in transition, and building attacks.
Furthermore, with the signings of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech now officially confirmed ahead of next season, Kovacic may find himself fighting for one of only two deep-lying spots in a 4-2-3-1 formation in 20/21.
Therefore, his form from now until the end of the season is vitally important; he needs to prove that he deserves a starting berth in Lampard’s system.
Chelsea desperately need three points against Aston Villa to maintain the gap above their top-four rivals, and no matter what, the race for Champions League football is going to go the distance.