The two summer signings are edging closer to making their long-awaited debuts, and the manager is beginning to turn Chelsea’s fortunes around

For the first time in a long time there is an air of optimism around Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea prepare for the return of domestic action riding on a wave of positivity. Two remarkable results before the international break suggest Mauricio Pochettino’s side are finally picking up some momentum, and they are about to get a significant shot in the arm.

As a disruptive early-season injury crisis finally begins to subside, the Blues are set to welcome Christopher Nkunku and Romeo Lavia into the fold – two big-money summer signings who are still yet to make their debuts.

Saturday’s game at Newcastle will just come too soon for them, but the manager is well aware that Chelsea are turning a corner after a mightily difficult start to his tenure. “We are going to try to keep the momentum,” he told reporters. “It is true we were in a moment that we were getting our way to play and the results were in our side. I am a person that believes that we can keep the momentum even with two weeks without no competition.”

Potential game-changers
Finally, finally, Chelsea are on the cusp of having two of their most exciting, big-money summer arrivals at their disposal: Nkunku and Lavia. Normally their simultaneous return to fitness might command the phrase ‘they will feel like new signings’, but in this case they quite literally are.

Neither player has made their competitive debut having picked up untimely serious injuries just weeks after completing their respective transfers. Indeed, Lavia is yet to even pull on the blue shirt; his involvement was initially delayed so he could catch up on match fitness, but he suffered an ankle ligament tear in training in September. Meanwhile, Nkunku fell victim to knee ligament damage during a friendly against Borussia Dortmund during Chelsea’s pre-season tour in the USA and was forced to undergo surgery.

Both, though, are on the verge of a long-awaited return and competitive bow having resumed training, and their arrivals could be transformative in the second half of the season.

Speaking before facing Newcastle on Saturday, Pochettino said: “Lavia and Nkunku are still out. It’s difficult to say [when they will be back] because we need to assess them day by day, but they are in a good condition. Nkunku is a little bit ahead of Lavia. He was doing things with the group last week but he’s still not fully recovered to be part of the squad [for Newcastle].”

Chelsea’s new No.9?

Much is expected of £53 million man ($68m) Nkunku in particular following his extraordinary exploits in the Bundesliga with RB Leipzig, although there will of course be some trepidation after the relative failures of Chelsea’s recent highly-rated imports from the German top flight, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner.

The Frenchman, though, feels different. He was a goal-contribution machine during his time in Leipzig, scoring 70 times and assisting on 56 occasions – including a remarkable 2021-22 where he bagged 35 goals and laid on 20 more. He should be a significant upgrade for a goal-shy attack that has continued to toil this season.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was reported in the summer that Chelsea were not unduly worried about pursuing an out-and-out No.9 in the belief that Nkunku would ably shoulder the goal-scoring burden, and a productive pre-season up until his injury suggested they would be vindicated. Speaking before his transfer was confirmed, the forward suggested he would be open to playing as a central striker, saying: “I play where the coach decides. I don’t want to be a problem but a solution. But I can be in front, in support or on the sides. I have this ability to adapt – I like to be free.”

Strength in depth

The pathway to the starting line-up is less clear for Lavia, who will likely have to displace Enzo Fernandez, Moises Caicedo or in-form Conor Gallagher.

What he will provide, though, is quality strength in depth in the middle of the park. Pochettino has only been able to call on Lavia’s fellow 19-year-old Lesley Ugochukwu in recent weeks with Carney Chukwuemeka another injury victim. Bringing the Belgian off the bench would be wholly different, though, as he brings Premier League experience and has already demonstrated a maturity beyond his years with his press resistance and ball-carrying ability at Southampton.

The Belgian will have designs on eventually forcing is way into the team having joined for a cool £58m ($73m) but, given his age, the fact Gallagher is playing out of his skin and Fernandez and Caicedo are showing the early signs of a South American synergy, he will surely be willing to bide his time and take the opportunities that come his way as the man next in line for a starting place.

An international break

Many within the walls of Cobham will be relieved to see the back of the last men’s international break of 2023, with the next pause not until March next year.

Every elite club has to deal with the consequences of their players jetting off to represent their countries, but the three breaks between September and late November have felt particularly detrimental to Chelsea’s engine room.

Neither Fernandez nor Caicedo have found their best form and have looked sluggish at times. That won’t have been helped by regularly having to travel to South America to represent Argentina and Ecuador respectively, while the gruelling schedule means they have been left with little time before a matchday upon their return. Indeed, Caicedo only arrived back a day before the away clash with Newcastle.

With four months until the next break, Chelsea will hope to see the duo reach their peaks as they continue to develop their blossoming understanding.

Positive signs

One major positive for Chelsea is that they have unexpected momentum heading towards the festive period. Their fixture list between the last international break and now looked daunting, but the Blues held Arsenal to a creditable draw and took four points off Tottenham and Man City before domestic action paused, scoring 10 goals in the process.

Things don’t get much easier, with back-to-back games against Newcastle, Manchester United and Brighton coming up. There is some hope that there are more points up for grabs, though, with the Magpies in the midst of an injury crisis and both United and Brighton in far from their best form. Saturday’s 3pm kick-off time against Eddie Howe’s side should also be beneficial, with the game strangely not selected for TV coverage.

The results against City and Spurs felt like a catalyst before the untimely international window, but Chelsea – with Nkunku and Lavia on the cusp of a return – will believe they can kick on from here and finally begin to make a serious impression.

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