Chelsea star’s return comes at perfect time for Conte’s title hopes
Three days ago, things couldn’t have been going better for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. Edging further and further clear at the top of the table with a game in hand as their rivals dropped points, the Blues were in dreamland.
But that all changed on Wednesday night at White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur put an end to the west London outfit’s remarkable 13-match winning streak.
And in doing so, the two points dropped by Liverpool and Arsenal earlier in the week suddenly turned into a point gained on the league leaders.
Prior to their 2-0 defeat to Spurs, Conte’s men had been in remarkable form, with their solid defence playing a huge role in proceedings. Of those 13 victories, seven were with clean sheets.
However, after conceding four goals in their last two outings, there’s a suggestion that cracks are beginning to appear in the Italian manager’s tried and tested title-winning 3-4-3 formation.
Much of that has been to do with the need to play Cesar Azpilicueta in a back three alongside David Luiz and Gary Cahill.
Quality and versatile as he may be, the Spain international certainly isn’t a centre-half.
That’s why Conte will be delighted with the expected return to the first-team of Kurt Zouma this weekend.
The Emirates FA Cup Third Round tie with Peterborough presents the Frenchman, who has been on the sidelines for the past 10 months, with a perfect opportunity to get some game-time under his belt and stake a claim for a starting spot.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, with the Blues set to play Leicester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in three of their next four fixtures.
Prior to his horrendous injury last campaign, Zouma was a near ever-present in Chelsea starting line-up.
John Terry’s best days at the club have come and gone, with the former England star having not featured for Chelsea since early November.
Like Zouma, injury has kept the 36-year-old out.
But it’s the youngster who’ll be back first, and it’s likely he’ll take his place alongside Cahill and Luiz in the coming weeks.
So where does that leave Azpilicueta?
Well, it’s unlikely he’ll be dropped any time soon.
The 27-year-old has played every minute of Premier League football under Conte so far this season, and is in fine form.
That leaves the Italian boss with a selection headache – albeit a welcome one.
Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have been two of the most surprising and impressive players of Chelsea’s campaign, with the two wing-backs really coming into their own over the last few months.
Fortunately for Conte, Azpilicueta is used to playing on either side, meaning he can afford to rest either of his current wide players safe in the knowledge that their replacement is one of the best in the league.
And that’s not a position many of the division’s title-chasing sides find themselves in.
Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool continue to look shaky at the back, while we’re still not entirely sure what Man United’s best back-four is.
And though they boast the best record in the division in terms of goals conceded, you’d have to admit that just one injury to Tottenham’s defensive unit would leave them in big trouble.
So in actual fact, Kurt Zouma’s return to the Chelsea first-team could have a huge impact on the title race.
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