Reece James return can transform Chelsea as Graham Potter offers license to attack
Reece James’s return to fitness might be just the boost Chelsea need ahead of a season-defining night.
The 23-year-old is expected to be fit to start at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea bid to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit in their Champions League last-16 tie against Borussia Dortmund.
For Graham Potter, the timing of his return might be crucial. Pressure on the head coach slightly alleviated after a 1-0 win over Leeds on Saturday, but tonight could have a significant bearing on his future.
James missed the Leeds game with a tight hamstring, but he trained yesterday and Potter hopes he can have a transformative effect on his struggling team.
Potter has hinted he will stick with the 3-4-3 system he used on Saturday, which would mean James playing at right wing-back. James has not looked himself since returning from a knee injury at the start of the month, playing on the right of a back-four.
But a move further forward will unlock his best attributes and will offer Chelsea more of an attacking threat in his favoured formation. Home and away wins over AC Milan in the group stage in October were an example of that, as James was used to devastating effect before he suffered a knee injury in the San Siro.
His displays in those matches conjured memories of the part the Chelsea academy graduate played in the wing-back role in the run to their 2021 Champions League triumph.
Just a month before the Milan victories, James signed a new contract that made him the best-paid player in Chelsea history, on a deal worth £250,000 a week. He is being groomed as a future Chelsea captain and he could be given the armband tonight if Cesar Azpilicueta is not selected to come in for the injured Thiago Silva in defence.
His contract reflected his importance to a team that has badly missed him during his spells on the sidelines. James missed more games than he has played this season.That has been a problem for Chelsea, who have struggled without him and won just six times in 24 matches since his knee injury in October.
He did return against Bournemouth on December 27 but lasted just 53 minutes and re-injured his knee in a setback. There is a feeling James has been playing within himself since returning, but Potter needs him back to his buccaneering best tonight.
There is a feeling James has been playing within himself, but Potter needs him back to his buccaneering best
Chelsea’s forwards are struggling and the Blues have managed just two goals in their past seven matches. But James can provide fresh attacking impetus and the system that helped Chelsea win the Champions League under Thomas Tuchel should help Potter get the most out of him.
It is unlikely to be easy for Chelsea against a Dortmund side on a 10-game winning run. The Germans are the only team in the top European leagues to have a 100 per cent record since the World Cup.
To progress to the quarter-finals, Chelsea must score twice in a match for the first time this year, or rely on penalties. Goals are needed and James could be a solution. Tuchel once described how James “shoots like a horse”, while his crossing ability is a key source of chances.
Ben Chilwell, who plays the same role on the left, was exceptional against Leeds, providing an assist for Wesley Fofana’s winner and having had the most touches in the opposition box. After James missed the first leg in Germany, Dortmund will be wary about a similar force emerging on the right-hand side at Stamford Bridge tonight.