Huge boost as Mauricio Pochettino receives triple boost for the Man City match
The international break is about to come for Chelsea and over the past two occasions the season has broken up it has been at differing times. In September it split up a rotten run of games but failed to have the desired impact with that spilling into October and last month it came during the best patch of form since Mauricio Pochettino arrived.
For the final time in 2023 it will, at very least, be a temporary breather for the Blues as they continue on a treacherous journey of matches with top half rivals. The fortnight away will come after playing Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City in the space of four weeks but leaves a trip to Newcastle and Manchester United either side of hosting Brighton still to come.
So far Pochettino’s men have five points from a possible 15 against top half sides – though they have also beaten the Seagulls in the Carabao Cup – which is not a spectacular return but is already halfway to the tally they got against the top 10 last season. The fact that they are unbeaten against Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs, three traditional if not current top four rivals, is more encouraging.
It is Aston Villa and Brentford – fifth and ninth respectively – that have caused the bigger issues. Chelsea have already dropped points to three of the five teams they faced below them in the table. Either way it hasn’t been a great start for Pochettino but the upcoming period at Cobham will give a bit of leeway, if nothing else.
Should Chelsea do the unthinkable and improbable and beat or even draw with Manchester City at Stamford Bridge then the narrative will be that this break comes at a bad time but if the more likely defeat follows then it might not be a bad time to spend some time elsewhere before getting back to business.
Perhaps fortunately for the Blues boss he has already seen two reasons to be happy ahead of the impending break. With a squad that is still piled high with injures – at least seven players are expected to miss the game on Sunday as it is – England’s squad announcement came with a few surprises.
Firstly it saw Raheem Sterling left out of the group for the third time in a row having been a regular under Gareth Southgate since making his debut. Although this isn’t a boost for Sterling it is a driving force for him to keep proving a point. The case has been made, especially this season, that he actually plays better when put up against it.
Chelsea fans may well still doubt this but he has been one of the club’s best performers this year, at least in terms of output. Only Nicolas Jackson – boosted by a somewhat fortunate hat-trick against Tottenham – and Cole Palmer – all three goals have come from the spot – have more goal contributions than Sterling this season for the Blues, and his form since the last break has been impressive.
Southgate is not yet ruling him out of making a way into the final squad for Euro 2024 and may even benefit, along with Pochettino, from the constant demand for excellence being placed on Sterling. Whilst Marcus Rashford struggles for form at Manchester United but continues to be selected, something applicable to several others in the group, Sterling has been left out.
“We don’t need to know about his quality, his personality,” the Three Lions boss said on Thursday. “He is a crucial part of why we’ve had the journey we’ve had over the last few years. I can only repeat what I have said in the meetings, we’re playing exceptionally well and who can I leave out?”
He added that the door was still open but if selection is based on club form – which it isn’t – then Sterling would certainly be in and if it comes down to past achievements and trust with England then it’s a surprise for him not to be there on that basis as well. The perceived sense of injustice may well have come at the perfect time for Pochettino though with Sterling’s former club coming to town as well, another chance to make a stand after he was injured early on in this fixture last season.
Elsewhere and Reece James was also left out despite returning to Chelsea’s side in the past three weeks. He has now played in the past four games, coming from the bench in two, starting the Carabao Cup win over Blackburn before his first league start since the opening day of the season.
“I was hoping to call Reece James, but he doesn’t feel he is quite ready,” Southgate explained. “He’s a bit cautious but I can understand that,” he said. “We have got options [at full-back] but perhaps they’re not the experienced options we have in other areas.”
Chelsea fans shouldn’t be too concerned with the fitness comment though after Southgate admitted that it’s hard to get a clear view on who is ready and who isn’t after James Maddison, Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham all got the nod as well. “Some of those, we could lose one today after a scan, we could lose one tomorrow,” he said.
“I don’t really know [who will be available]. You’d be amazed at how complicated it is picking a squad because all clubs are of course sensitive to information and you’re trying to piece everything together.
“So I couldn’t be certain that everybody that is in that squad will be there on Sunday night [when the squad reports for duty], varying levels of doubt. With that Callum [Wilson] is probably the biggest level of doubt, but equally I’m pretty confident that the others can get through and they’re all keen to be in the squad so that’s a really good sign.”
James being rested rather than used in what is ultimately two games that have little impact on England, is certainly going to be a boost for Pochettino ahead of the games to come. He may also have been happy to see Palmer not in the team.
It would have been a big moment for the former Manchester City youngster having not yet played for the senior side or received a call-up but his form is becoming more and more unignorable by the week. For the second time in five league starts he both scored and assisted on Monday and already has three goals and five assists for the Blues since joining.
His strikes have come from the spot but under increasing pressure and he is right now one of those outside looking in with the best chance of being involved come the final decision for next summer. “Cole Palmer is starting to play well,” Southgate admitted. “But we have so much competition in that area.”
It will be a challenge for him to break into the group but if this form continues it becomes a case of when and not if he gets the promotion from youth international to senior. For now though the fact that he will be in Lee Carsley’s Under-21 squad, announced on Friday morning, is another thing to be pleased with.
Palmer dominates at this level and can do it with such ease that it would take a moment of complete misfortune to see him injured that even two games for his country won’t do that much harm. There had been a concern whilst he went away last time but that turned out to be nothing and he was standing out for Chelsea by the following weekend regardless.
Like Sterling and also James, with the chance to be involved for England a realistic prospect for next summer but the carrot dangling just in front of them – less James is this sense, he is very much a staple when fit – there is a challenge to be met and club form is the way in.
For now though it just gives Pochettino less to worry about in terms of injuries and that isn’t something that can be said very often at the moment. Christopher Nkunku is still out, hence just why the relationship of Palmer and Sterling has been so crucial, and that has left a gaping chasm in the team.
The Frenchman is due to be back after the break though as a target towards the end of December is set for a potential debut. Nkunku, like his teammates, will be aiming to play at Euro 2024 but isn’t in the first choice team so once more has plenty to play for upon his return.