Chelsea vs Middlesbrough: 3 things to look out for

Chelsea v Newcastle United - Carabao Cup Quarter Final
Chelsea v Newcastle United - Carabao Cup Quarter Final / Marc Atkins/GettyImages

After a 10-day winter break, Chelsea returns to the pitch, gearing up for a crucial EFL Cup second-leg fixture against Middlesbrough. With a 1-0 deficit, the team must deliver a robust performance to secure a spot in the final, where an all-Premier League showdown awaits against Liverpool or Fulham. Here are three things to look forward to:

1. The impact of break

The Blues undoubtedly welcomed the 10-day gap in the middle of the season as a much-needed respite. Due to numerous injuries, the players who remained fit have had more playing time than initially anticipated at the season's outset. This brief break promises to be a valuable opportunity for them to rejuvenate both mind and body, preparing them for the challenges ahead in the remainder of the season.

The break ideally offers Manager Mauricio Pochettino a chance to gain clarity on the significance of fielding players in their designated positions. Observing Ian Maatsen's impressive debut as a left-back for Borussia Dortmund might have underscored the importance of such decisions. It becomes particularly relevant given Pochettino's apparent reluctance to deploy Maatsen in that role despite the absence of Ben Chilwell and Marc Cucurella.

2. Impact of injuries

Injuries have persistently plagued the club in recent years. But, there appears to be minimal concerted effort to address and prevent this ongoing issue. Confirming ahead of Tuesday's match, Pochettino acknowledged the unavailability of Malo Gusto, leaving the home side again without a designated right-back. While fans may express disappointment, Pochettino would be oddly thrilled to continue his unconventional practice of playing players out of their natural positions.

Chilwell is available for the starting lineup, and ideally, he should take his place as the left-back, not being positioned as a left-winger. Based on recent performances, Raheem Sterling should find himself on the bench.
Predicting the lineup remains challenging, primarily due to Pochettino's unusual penchant for deploying players out of their natural positions and persisting with underperforming individuals like Sterling despite lackluster displays.

3. The mindset of players

Chelsea is facing a shortage of players up top. Christopher Nkunku is unavailable due to a fresh setback involving a hip problem, and Nicolas Jackson is on international duty. In the absence of these players, the only available forward, Armando Broja, was not chosen to start in the away fixture against the visitors. The upcoming match raises curiosity about the performance of the Albanian striker, especially amidst numerous reports indicating the club's willingness to make him available for transfer during the January window.

The upcoming match is the most crucial fixture for the Blues this season. A victory with a margin of two or more goals would propel them to a Wembley final. A win there represents their best chance for European football next season. This match holds immense significance for Pochettino, given the discontent among fans regarding his decisions and playing style, despite backing from the owners. Despite the players giving their best, Pochettino's questionable choices make their lives difficult. A loss on Tuesday night would complicate the rest of the season for the club.