Frank Lampard is faced with a fantastically problematic midfield conundrum ahead of the visit of Ajax tonight, as N’Golo Kante returns to full fitness.
Kante has been his effortlessly effective self, but only in small swathes, as injuries have ravaged his season thus far limiting him to just four appearances in all competitions. In his absence, however, Chelsea have flourished, with the midfield pivot of Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic breaking up play and mobilising the transition between defence and attack. This now poses Lampard an unenviable but ultimately exciting decision between whether to operate with three conservative options in a midfield three, bench one of Jorginho or Kovacic despite their form, or just to leave Kante on the periphery of the squad.
Aside from the obvious gravitas of the game, in which either Chelsea or Ajax could pull away from one another in the hunt for a first-place finish in Group H, there is a rather more personal and sentimental motivation for victory. Lampard and his team of young guns have yet to truly make Stamford Bridge their fortress, struggling to break down typically defensive opposition setups before surrendering sloppy goals from set-pieces. Of course, their form has improved since a string of unsavoury draws to the likes of Leicester and Sheffield United, but questions still remain regarding the midfield’s ability to carve out openings and employ the sort of combination play that has become such a staple of their performances on the road this season.
Ajax will still be reeling from their last encounter with the Blues, and revenge is on the lips of every Ajax fan even if they’re prohibited from actually entering the Bridge, due to crowd trouble in their last Champions League away trip, against Valencia. 2000 fans are nonetheless expected to make the journey to West London in order to show their support albeit in line with UEFA’s ruling. Erik Ten Haag’s team will likely be the subject of unwanted German onlookers as well, with Bayern Munich lining up Ten Haag as the ideal replacement for Nico Kovac following his dismissal earlier this week.
The return of Kante will dictate the narrative of the game both in the papers and on the pitch, with the Frenchman perhaps the answer to combatting Ajax’s possession game and making Chelsea more expansive and unpredictable at home.