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Football London
Football London
Adam Newson

Graham Potter faces N'Golo Kante decision with Chelsea challenge clear ahead of Real Madrid

Graham Potter plans to use the international break as an opportunity to recharge – at least for a few days. How realistic that ambition is when the head coach of Chelsea is debatable; there are always high-profile and high-stakes games to prepare and plan for.

"I will [have a break]," Potter said at the weekend after the 2-2 draw against Everton. "I think that’s sensible because there is an intense period coming up; April and May will be heavy for us. So it’s important for me as the leader to gain some freshness and recharge, and to use the time well.

"I’m probably going to close my eyes and sleep for a few hours...or try to! I’ll spend some time with the family and then we’ll see [what there is to do]."

READ MORE: Chelsea face intense battle to escape from Premier League purgatory under Graham Potter

The Blues will end March unbeaten. Three much-needed victories were secured against Leeds United, Borussia Dortmund and Leicester City. The frustration is that another slipped away in the latter stages against Everton - and Chelsea are unable to put that right until after the international break.

A visit from Aston Villa comes next; it is 10th vs 11th in the Premier League. Yet for Chelsea, there is more at stake. With Real Madrid to come in the Champions League quarter-final next month, positive momentum must be maintained. Potter can't afford for another doom spiral to take hold.

There will be difficult selection decisions to be made against Unai Emery's side. Some will be influenced by the international fixtures, others by fitness concerns.

After a two-month recovery from surgery on a fractured finger, Edouard Mendy returned to full training last week. The Senegal international hasn't featured for the Blues since November and has been usurped in the goalkeeper pecking order by Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Such has been the upturn in performance from Kepa – who took the captain's armband from Mateo Kovacic late on against Everton – that he has been recalled to the Spain squad by Luis de la Fuente. The 28-year-old will be hopeful of earning his 12th cap during the international break, and his first since October 2020.

Kepa did face criticism for his weak attempt to stop Ellis Simms' late equaliser on Saturday but – barring injury – he will be between the posts for Chelsea against Villa. Mendy may be ready to return to the matchday squad for the first time since the defeat to Newcastle United prior to the World Cup.

Potter has settled upon a back three in recent weeks and will be reticent to move away from that shape. Whether Wesley Fofana is fit enough to continue on the right remains to be seen; the 22-year-old was forced to pull out of the France squad due to an injury sustained against Everton.

If Fofana isn't ready to return, and there is little point rushing the centre-back with Real Madrid to come, Trevoh Chalobah could be handed a return to the defence. Kalidou Koulibaly could continue in the middle due to the absence of Thiago Silva – and the 31-year-old will have to bounce back after his error in the lead-up to Simms' goal.

Benoit Badiashile returned to the left of the back three at the weekend; his height was much needed given the aerial threat of Sean Dyche's side. He will be in action for France Under-21s in the coming days and that may result in Marc Cucurella, who is not on international duty, coming back into the team to face Villa.

Potter will likely remain cautious with Reece James' workload ahead of the Champions League quarter-final. Yet if the academy graduate doesn't play back-to-back games for England he should be in contention to start at right wing-back. Ben Chilwell is the easy choice on the opposite flank.

Chelsea are using the international break as an opportunity to ease N'Golo Kante back into match action. The Frenchman was an unused substitute against Everton and Potter outlined after the draw that plans were in place for Kante to make his return in an in-house friendly.

"We're still planning it but I think it will probably be internal," explained Potter on Saturday. "That will be good. We need to control it as much as we can and then I think we've got about four players [not on international duty], so it is what it is. We have to hope players come back injury free and that we use the break to refresh and prepare for a really hectic April."

Kante will not be ready to be thrown into the hectic world of Premier League football when Villa visit Stamford Bridge. That will likely result in Enzo Fernandez starting once more alongside Kovacic in midfield; the duo have formed a strong partnership in recent outings.

For the remainder of his loan spell, Joao Felix is a guaranteed starter; the finances involved in the deal to bring him in from Atletico Madrid ensure that. The Portuguese has linked well with Kai Havertz, who should continue in the withdrawn role he has played in March.

Raheem Sterling is not away with England as he looks to overcome a hamstring problem. If the 28-year-old is fit, he is likely to return to the side and be the spearhead of the attack. Christian Pulisic, Mykhailo Mudryk, and Noni Madueke could all prove useful threats from the substitutes' bench.


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