Champions League football is back as Chelsea welcome Ligue 1 champions Lille to Stamford Bridge.
It’s been a long wait for the last 16 of Europe’s premier competition with the Blues undergoing some difficult form but also lifting the Club World Cup since sealing qualification.
The important games now start stacking up with Chelsea looking to have a strong start against Lille in their opening leg before having to turn their thoughts to Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final.
As so often this season, thoughts of who can maintain the workload and which players need a rest and when will be present at the forefront of Thomas Tuchel‘s mind alongside the simple importance of winning.
The German coach is set to be without Callum Hudson-Odoi for the visit of the French side, after he felt pain in his Achilles when attempting to train on Friday and did not feature in the Blues’ open session on Monday afternoon. Reece James was also not present in that session as he recovers from his hamstring injury, but Mason Mount and Cesar Azpilicueta featured after missing the win over Crystal Palace.
Given the state of play, football.london takes a look at the changes Tuchel could make for the Champions League challenge below:
Back to the back three
Chelsea have had struggles finding the route to get everyone thriving in the formation they choose in recent weeks, with Hakim Ziyech clearly producing more often when playing in front of a back four as the Blues’ standout player in recent weeks.
Playing with three central defenders has clearly been Tuchel’s favoured option however. Despite a run of games with four defenders on the pitch, the German coach reverted to three central defenders in the Club World Cup final against Palmeiras.
It’s clear a back three of Andreas Christsensen, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rudiger provides a real strength, and even though the Blues have the abilitity to transition between the formations within in game, the solid nature of the backline has been the key to Chelsea’s success in knockout football.
Trevoh Chalobah could return to the side in place of Christensen, or Silva to provide some rest before another mammoth game at the weekend, providing Azpilicueta responds well to another training session he should come into the side as the wing-back on the right flank to facilitate the change of shape.
Marcos Alonso decision
The Spanish defender has not been among the first name on the teamsheet for some time and Malang Sarr and Hudson-Odoi have both found themselves on the left flank. With the latter ruled out due to injury, the attacking qualities Alonso possesses just give him the edge when playing with three centre backs.
The 31-year-old showed the quality of delivery he could provide for Hakim Ziyech’s goal against Palace, and while Sarr has performed admirably, that attacking incision could prove crucial when Alonso has the cover to help his defensive deficiencies.
Mateo Kovacic return
The Croatian midfielder has arguably been Chelsea’s star performer this season and his introduction at Selhurst Park clearly made a difference.
Given the quality of the Blues’ midfielders it seems ludicrous any of them could not start two games in a row so the former Real Madrid ace should return to the team. As one of few players who has shown a connection with Romelu Lukaku that can’t come too soon after the Belgian recorded just seven touches at the weekend.
Perhaps N’Golo Kante is the man to start from the bench on this occasion after Jorginho had to settle for a place among the substitutes in Abu Dhabu.
There’s no doubting the impact the Frenchman can make in the Champions League after last season’s performances however.
The front four
It’s safe to say Chelsea’s forward play was not the best against the Eagles and they will have to show greater cutting edge at Stamford Bridge against Lille.
Hakim Ziyech is turning himself into an undroppable force with his recent contributions on the right, and despite his greater fluency ahead of a back four, he’s proven himself to be the Blues’ most effective star in 2022.
Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz and Lukaku all had very different afternoons in south London as none of the trio impressed. Given Mount remains on the comeback trail having just returned to training on Monday, there is little in the way of alternatives the Blues can call upon.
The Blues have persistently started Lukaku and were rewarded with two goals and some very positive signs in their Club World Cup campaign before the side’s cohesion was exposed at the weekend.
Perhaps Pulisic and Havertz will be rested and allow Timo Werner to earn his first start since the early part of January.
Potential Chelsea XI: Mendy; Chalobah, Silva, Rudiger; Azpilicueta, Kovacic, Jorginho, Alonso; Ziyech, Lukaku, Werner.