Enzo Maresca already has first name on Chelsea team sheet decided ahead of Manchester City clash

New Chelsea manager Enzo Maresca
-Credit: (Image: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

We are just under a month-and-a-half away from when Enzo Maresca gets his Chelsea career properly underway.

The Italian will take charge of six pre-season fixtures this summer but the Blues' Premier League campaign begins on August 18 with the visit of last season's champions Manchester City to Stamford Bridge. From a Chelsea perspective, starts to a season do not get any tougher than Pep Guardiola's men, who have won six out of the last seven Premier League titles - including the latest four.

Maresca, who officially started his head coach role on Monday of this week, will be hoping to find out as much as humanly possible in the coming month or so before Man City arrive in west London. His first competitive team selection will be really intriguing and we may start to gather what that might look like during the club's pre-season tour of the United States, followed by their final game of the off-season against Inter Milan.

One name, though, that is almost guaranteed to be on the team sheet is Malo Gusto. The 21-year-old signed for the Blues last summer and was immense in his debut season at Stamford Bridge; where he more than stepped up in Reece James' long-term absence.

James, who was appointed as the club's captain 12 months ago, missed the majority of the 2023/24 season through injury. However, the England right-back has since had surgery on his hamstring to hopefully solve the problems he has been suffering with in that specific area.

The 24-year-old returned to action with three games of the season left to go. He made an immediate impact against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, where he set up what turned out to be the winning goal from Nicolas Jackson to inspire a narrow victory in a five-goal thriller.

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He then came on in the next game down at the Amex Stadium, Chelsea's penultimate match of the season, and was shown a red card after just 19 minutes on the pitch. It was James' second sending off of the season after being told to leave the pitch in November at Newcastle United.

Because it was his second red card of the campaign, he was handed a four-match suspension. James served one of those matches, the final game of the season against AFC Bournemouth, but will miss the first three fixtures of the new Premier League term.

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That means James will miss matches against Man City at home, Wolves away and Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge. In his absence, it looks set to be Gusto who will be given the opportunity to lay an early marker down to Maresca about his capabilities and why he should be competing with James for a spot in the first-team.

James is such a tremendous footballer, so when Gusto was signed, supporters would have been satisfied if he was a 'solid back-up' option - but he proved to be much more than that last term. Many were calling for Gusto to keep his place in the team even when James is fit; that is how impressive the former Lyon defender was.

In all competitions last season, Gusto made 37 appearances - where he recorded nine assists. And that was a season where he too had his fair share of injury problems. His ability to attack down the right-hand side gave Chelsea a whole new dimension under Mauricio Pochettino.

"Reece is a big player," Gusto told reporters ahead of the Carabao Cup final in February. "One of the best players in this position. It's not good for the team [that he was out injured at the time] as Reece is the captain and it's not good for everyone in the club. But me, I have to be ready to take every chance.

"We talk a lot. I try to help him, he tries to help me as well. It's a good competition between him and me. We are not similar [as players], but when we are on the pitch we try to help the team, keeping a good mentality, to score and to assist. That is what we have to do."

James may well be Maresca's go-to man at right-back when he is fit and available - as it stands, anyway. So it is absolutely imperative from Gusto's point of view that he makes a real, notable impact in those first three games of the season. It feels potentially defining for his season.