Now I know this is going to sound a little strange but bear with me. Chelsea’s Premier League game against Fulham tomorrow may prove more difficult than their midweek Champions League semi-final first leg against Real Madrid.
Yes, you read that right. The team that currently sits 18th in the Premier League table and have won just two of their last ten league matches may very well be a sterner test for Thomas Tuchel and his players than the 13-time European champions.
I’m sure you’re asking why, so let me explain.
First off is the fact that no professional footballer lacks motivation, desire, hunger, or any other synonym you care to choose when it comes to playing in a Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid.
Like it or not, Fulham at home doesn’t quite have the same gravitas nor provide the same mental stimulus.
Then there’s the reality that the second leg of the semi-final against the La Liga giants will be played on Wednesday. It’s only human for players’ minds to jump ahead, to look beyond Scott Parker’s side at the bigger, more enticing, fixture.
And finally is the fact Fulham can sit back, defend, and put the initiative onto Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The Blues need to win to maintain momentum and keep themselves ahead in the race to finish in the Premier League top four. The pressure is very much on them.
Thomas Tuchel will be aware of the potential pitfalls and will try to guard against them. And perhaps the best way to do that is to freshen up his starting XI.
The German named an unchanged side for the first time in midweek, opting to go with the same eleven players who started last weekend’s victory over West Ham United. It paid off with the Blues claiming a 1-1 draw in the Spanish capital.
He will not do the same against Fulham. He can’t afford to. Players need to be rested, minds need to be kept sharp for the huge games ahead.
So changes to the side are likely and here are the four Chelsea players we think should start against the Cottagers.
Under Frank Lampard, the French defender was an almost ever-present in the starting XI. Yet with Tuchel at the helm – and despite the German coach favouring a system which utilises three centre-backs – Zouma has struggled for regular minutes.
He’s started only eight of the 22 matches Tuchel has overseen, the last of which was the 0-0 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion in which the 26-year-old made a late error which almost cost Chelsea a point.
Zouma is very much bottom of the centre-back pecking order. However, he should start against Fulham with 36-year-old Thiago Silva unlikely to feature and Cesar Azpilicueta leggy in the latter stages against Madrid having played two consecutive matches at right wing-back.
One of the first decisions Tuchel made after replacing Lampard at the end of January was to deploy Hudson-Odoi at wing-back in his 3-4-2-1 system.
The 20-year-old started the German coach’s opening two matches in the role and was then pushed into the forward line for the 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur.
It appeared as though Hudson-Odoi finally had a coach that trusted him and was ready to unlock his vast potential. That is no longer the case as starts have become sporadic over the last two months for the academy graduate.
Hudson-Odoi has been named in the side just three times since the beginning of March with Reece James now Tuchel’s to-go at right wing-back.
James is likely to start in the position against Fulham seeing as he only played 24 minutes against Madrid.
Hudson-Odoi, meanwhile, should be trusted in the forward line once again. He built his reputation as a devastating winger in the Blues’ academy, often coming in off the left flank to threaten goal.
Chelsea supporters saw a glimpse of what Hudson-Odoi can do in that role against Everton last month. It’s time for him to be given an opportunity to build on that.
Tuchel admitted ahead of Tuesday’s game against Real Madrid that the Morocco international was unfortunate not to start given his performance in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
“It was a close one to leave Hakim out because he deserved to play, he was very decisive in the last games,” Tuchel said.
Fortunately, it does mean that Ziyech will be fresh to face Fulham tomorrow. And if the 28-year-old was to start on the right of the attacking three, it may enable Mason Mount to have a rare break from the side.
Although with Mateo Kovacic a doubt due to injury and N’Golo Kante’s fitness carefully managed by Tuchel, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Mount included in the double six alongside Jorginho, as he was against Brighton.
The last two months have been far from easy for Chelsea’s top scorer.
He suffered an ankle injury against Newcastle United in February which forced him to miss seven matches and, after returning to full fitness during the recent international break, was then overlooked by Tuchel.
Abraham has continued to work hard in training, even doing extras after Tuchel’s sessions are over.
And he appears to be winning over the German coach who said ahead of last week’s win at West Ham: “He has struggled for several reasons, one of the reasons are my decisions, of course.
“But here are several other reasons, he was a bit unlucky, he was injured, we talked about it because he struggled a bit to accept the situation and he struggled a bit to find the solution to the situation, he was a bit stuck between what he demands of himself, his expectations about his role, and then the role he was suddenly in.
“Now I have the feeling that he has found the way to cope with it, which I am very happy about, he produced very good training sessions now in a row.”
Abraham was given a late run out at the London Stadium and was then on the bench in midweek. He deserves a start, an opportunity to prove himself.
Fulham at home is the ideal opportunity, especially given Timo Werner and Kai Havertz are likely to be called upon against Real Madrid next Wednesday.