11 months ago

Chelsea lose Christopher Nkunku to injury in pre-season draw with Dortmund

Chelsea lose Christopher Nkunku to injury in pre-season draw with Dortmund
Chelsea lose Christopher Nkunku to injury in pre-season draw with Dortmund


IIE Digital Desk: On a cabbage patch of a pitch, Chelsea lost Christopher Nkunku to injury and almost stumbled for the first time under Mauricio Pochettino before summoning the resolve to emerge from pre-season unbeaten after Mason Burstow denied Borussia Dortmund victory with a last-minute equaliser.

The desire to fight back after Marius Wolf’s undeserved opener for Dortmund will have pleased Pochettino, although his mood is unlikely to have been helped by the state of the playing surface at Soldier Field. The damage had been caused by the stadium hosting an Ed Sheeran concert last weekend and it was hard not to suspect that the state of it played a part in Nkunku hurting his left knee during the first half.

Chelsea will hope that Nkunku, who has impressed since his £58m move from RB Leipzig, will not be out for long. Much of their attacking identity disappeared after the Frenchman went off and Pochettino does not have long to prepare before his side host Liverpool in their first match of the new campaign. Chelsea, who still look short of an edge in the final third, could do with Nkunku making a swift recovery.

Still, at least this has mostly been a productive tour. Chicago was the final stop for Chelsea and the vibes have been good. There has been none of gloom that set in under Thomas Tuchel last summer and there have been glimpses of Pochettino’s ideas taking hold. Set up in an attacking 4-3-3 system, there has been an energy and sprightliness to Chelsea at their best. Nicolas Jackson has looked strong and sharp up front. Levi Colwill, who has given the club a boost by signing a new long-term deal, has offered poise in central defence.

Equally there are still a few imperfections for Pochettino to eradicate, not least in a midfield short on nous and high-grade class. Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mason Mount and Mateo Kovacic have gone and the great clear out has left Chelsea with a gaping hole in the middle of the park. For Pochettino, the prospect of Enzo Fernández and Conor Gallagher as the only senior midfielders at the club is far from ideal. Carney Chukwuemeka, Andrey Santos and Cesare Casadei have impressed in patches and Lesley Ugochukwu has arrived from Rennes, but they are young and need time to grow. Much could rest on whether Chelsea reach an agreement to sign Brighton & Hove Albion’s Moisés Caicedo before facing Liverpool.

Pochettino will have seen spots of concern against Dortmund. There was a period during the first half when his side simply lost their shape and the Germans played around them. Chelsea, who have identified Edson Álvarez and Tyler Adams as alternatives to Caicedo, strained for control at times. Gallagher and Chukwuemeka worked hard but needed more subtlety and positional awareness. Further back, Fernández passed well but continued to look as if he required a more physical partner.

Admittedly part of the issue was down to a dreadful pitch. At one point Thiago Silva wandered over to Pochettino and moaned about the patchy turf. There were some bizarre bounces, every pass was a bobbler and it was no surprise when Nkunku, who had made a bright start, went off with a knee injury after falling victim to the heavy playing surface.

The loss of the France forward disrupted Chelsea’s flow. Nkunku’s starting position was on the left but he kept drifting inside to link with Jackson. The duo have developed a strong understanding and Chelsea almost led when they linked with Chukwuemeka early on, only for Alexander Mayer to race out to deny Jackson.

Losing Nkunku gave Chelsea a tactical problem. His runs inside allow Ben Chilwell to charge forward from left-back but that ploy was harder to pull off once Mykahilo Mudryk had replaced Nkunku. Mudryk stayed wider, meaning that Raheem Sterling was asked to move inside from the right flank. Sterling, whose form has been unconvincing, found it difficult to locate pockets of space.

Nonetheless Chelsea were the far more enterprising team. There was a chance for Colwill, who scooped over after Silva flicked on a Chilwell corner. Sterling would also slash wide from an angle and Jackson was unfortunate after bursting through, the ball refusing to sit properly for the striker as he fired over with Mayer stranded.

There was more frustration for Chelsea during the second half. Sterling came to life, centring for Jackson, who teed up Chukwuemeka for a shot that was cleared off the line. Mudryk stirred, his pace causing problems, but was unable to find a final ball. Jackson, an absolute handful, turned and shrugged off a couple of challenges before being tackled on the edge of the area.

Chelsea looked comfortable. Colwill was outstanding next to Silva in central defence. The youngster was dominant in the air, quick to read danger and calm on the ball. He will surely start against Liverpool.

Yet Chelsea could not keep a clean sheet. They looked vulnerable when Marc Cucurella came on, the left-back almost gifting Julian Brandt a goal with a stray pass, and they were behind when a hopeful shot from Samuel Bamba squirmed through to Wolf. Played onside by Gallagher, the right-back had time to slide a low finish past Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Under pressure, Chelsea responded. With time ticking away, they levelled when Dortmund failed to clear a free-kick. Fernández headed the ball back into the six-yard box and Burstow, on as a substitute, punished diffident defending by glancing past Mayer.

There was time for Fernández to threaten with a late drive. Chelsea could not find a second and the question now is whether they respond to Nkunku’s injury by looking for a new striker. Perhaps the prospect of sending Romelu Lukaku to Juventus in exchange for Dusan Vlahovic has increased.

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