Chelsea didn’t finish their Premier League season with a flourish. Instead, the Blues stumbled at the final hurdle away at Aston Villa and were essentially dragged into the top four by the most unlikely of allies: Tottenham Hotspur.
That Thomas Tuchel and his players have secured Champions League football for next term is hugely important. It ensures Chelsea can be bullish in their attempts to strengthen their squad this summer. And as the defeat at Villa Park highlighted, that is very much needed.
Throughout this season, the Blues have produced lacklustre performances when the pressure is on. The FA Cup final and the display in the Midlands yesterday the most recent examples. Tuchel can’t afford a repeat in less than a week’s time.
The Blues travel out to Porto in a few days for the club’s most important game in almost a decade: the Champions League final. Standing between Chelsea and the big-eared trophy is Manchester City, who won the Premier League by a 12-point margin this season.
“I think he will join us for Wednesday training to be ready for Saturday,” Tuchel said ahead of kick-off in the Midlands. “I think he wouldn’t have had the chance even if it was the last match [of the season] today. It was simply two or three days too early.”
Kante isn’t the only injury issue Tuchel has to deal with; the game against Villa resulted in another key man potentially being sidelined for the City clash and leaving the German coach with a problem to solve.
The goalkeeper concern
It was shortly before half-time that Chelsea fell behind against Villa. A nicely worked corner from the home side got Bertrand Traore free in the Blues penalty area and his scuffed effort looped up kissed the crossbar on its way past Edouard Mendy.
The Senegal international did his very best to deny Traore as he flung himself into the corner of his goal. He landed heavily, though, on the frame that supports the net.
That Mendy didn’t jump back up to help restart the game was telling, and at half-time, the decision was taken for Mendy to be replaced by Kepa Arrizabalga.
Tuchel gave an update on Mendy’s fitness after the defeat. The Chelsea head coach said: “He fell into the frame of the net. He felt a big pain in his ribs. We will have an update tomorrow with what’s going on. We will see if it is possible and if it is possible, we will push to do everything so he is in goal on Saturday.”
Kepa remains the world’s most expensive goalkeeper but is very much second choice at Stamford Bridge. Mendy is the reason why. The 29-year-old has produced a series of big performances in recent weeks – most notably in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final victory over Real Madrid.
Tuchel will be waiting nervously on the results of Mendy’s x-ray. If he has cracked a rib or worse a decision will need to be taken. Either Chelsea patch up the former Rennes star as best they can and hope he can play through the pain or they turn to Kepa for the biggest match in several years.
Jorginho or Kovacic
Much like Mendy, Tuchel will be desperate to have Kante available for the final on Saturday. The 30-year-old has become the ultimate big-game player for Chelsea this term, producing all-action, indefatigable performances when it matters most.
Kante’s absence was especially noticeable at Villa. With Jorginho and a not 100% fit Mateo Kovacic, the Blues struggled to control the game. Too often possession was lost in midfield and that enabled the home side to mount several counter-attacks.
It was little surprise that neither Jorginho nor Kovacic finished the game. The former was replaced on the hour-mark, the latter six minutes later. Reece James, who started on the right of the back three, ended the game in centre midfield alongside Mason Mount.
Yet come the Champions League final, if Kante is fit as Tuchel hopes, one of Jorginho or Kovacic is going to be given the nod alongside him.
Who that will be is not easy given the performances of both at Villa Park. You sense, however, it will be Jorginho given his past displays in Europe alongside Kante this season.
Who leads the line
Chelsea were are their wasteful best at Villa Park. Chance after chance was created by the Blues and almost all were spurned by a combination of Mason Mount, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz and more.
Werner did get on the scoresheet in the second period only to have it ruled out for offside. That has become somewhat customary for the 25-year-old but on this occasion, it was the run made by Cesar Azpilicueta that was mistimed.
Chelsea’s profligacy has been a problem throughout the campaign. They can’t afford to be against Man City as it’s likely Pep Guardiola’s side dominate the ball. When an opportunity falls to a Blues attacker in Porto, they will need to be ruthless.
That leaves Tuchel with several difficult decisions to make as to who makes up the front three. Christian Pulisic was ineffective against Villa and has lost form in the last two weeks. The toils of a long season finally look to be slowing Mount down, meanwhile.
Chelsea have almost unrivalled depth in the attacking areas with the likes of Havertz and Hakim Ziyech options Tuchel can turn to. And Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud, although they don’t appear to be trusted by the German.
Who Tuchel selects in Porto to fire the Blues to glory will be among his toughest decisions. And it’s one he can’t afford to get wrong.