As N’Golo Kante walked off the Stamford Bridge pitch just 30 minutes into the victory against Leicester City, the sense of concern among the 8,000 Chelsea supporters inside the stadium was palpable.
Eleven days before the Champions League final against Man City, one of the most influential midfielders in world football and a vital part of Thomas Tuchel’s side was being replaced. Injury appeared the reason why.
Over the last two seasons, Kante’s hamstrings have become body parts of interest among Chelsea fans – per transfermarkt, the Frenchman has been ruled out on four occasions since September 2019 due to issues with them.
Kante’s all-action, indefatigable style puts a huge workload put on his body. It’s why, given the midfielder is now 30-years-old, he has to be managed carefully. Kante appreciates this, it’s why he effectively brought himself off against the Foxes on Tuesday night.
To the relief of Chelsea fans, Tuchel explained: “N’Golo is not injured. He told me – and I understood him right in French – he went out before an injury. He felt his hamstrings and was worried that he would get injured if he continued to play.”
The Blues’ medical team got straight to work on Kante. After being replaced, the Frenchman went straight down the Stamford Bridge tunnel and into the dressing room to be assessed and undergo any treatment required.
After the game, Tuchel said rather hopefully in an interview with Chelsea’s in-house media that there was a chance Kante would return against Aston Villa on Sunday.
That match is one of huge importance for the Blues. A victory will guarantee a place in the Premier League top four no matter the respective results of Liverpool and Leicester City, who currently sit a point behind Chelsea with just one game left to play.
Qualifying for next season’s Champions League is all-important for the club. Tuchel let that slip after the FA Cup defeat to the Foxes last weekend.
He said: “Do we want to play Champions League next season? Yes, this is the target when I stepped into this club. I want to be very clear, the task was, ‘let’s try everything to be in the top four’.
“The task was not, ‘let’s try everything to win the FA Cup’ because the FA Cup, as big as it is, does not bring you to Champions League football next season. It’s the top four that brings us that.”
Chelsea are fortunate in that they have two opportunities to secure top-echelon European football next term. The first is against Villa, the second in Porto against Man City – the winner of the Champions League gains entry into the following season’s competition.
There is no denying the easier of the two fixtures comes at Villa Park. Dean Smith’s side have enjoyed a good Premier League campaign and have claimed several impressive results, most recently of which was against Tottenham Hotspur. But Villa are 11th in the top-flight table and have nothing to play for on the final day.
Having Kante in the side on Sunday gives Chelsea a better chance of coming away victorious from the Midlands. Tuchel has acknowledged that: “Hopefully, NG will come back as we are a different team with NG and without NG,” he said after the win over Leicester.
Yet even if Kante is declared fit by the Blues’ medical team – and he feels comfortable starting – there is still a risk with those troublesome hamstrings. One stretch to intercept the ball, one sprint to make a tackle, one burst forward could be one too many and rule the midfielder out of the Champions League final.
That is big one for Chelsea supporters. It is for the club too, although the hierarchy will want to go into the game safe in the knowledge their place in next season’s Champions League is already assured. They will not want everything to ride on what happens in Porto, they went through that in 2012 in Munich.
It’s why Tuchel has a tough decision to make against Villa on Sunday. If Kante is deemed ready to play, does the Chelsea head coach run the hamstring gauntlet with the French star in the hope his inclusion in the side helps the Blues to victory?
Or does he play it safe over Kante’s fitness and roll the dice with Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho in midfield? They certainly have the quality to get the job done, although the former has only himself just returned from a month-long absence due to a hamstring issue.
We will get the answers to those questions at around 3pm on Sunday afternoon. Whatever decision is taken by Tuchel, he will hope it’s the right one.
Source by Football London