It remains to be seen how Chelsea supporters will remember the 2017-18 season. Presently, the Blues still have an outside chance of wrestling a Champions League qualification place from one of Tottenham or Liverpool. It’s a big ask, though, given that Antonio Conte’s side are reliant on their rivals coming up seriously short in their remaining fixtures. Beating Manchester United in the FA Cup final looks a far more viable path to success, but that will be far from easy.
Right now there are no guarantees and many fans are already looking to the future. Chelsea’s erratic form has meant there has been a question mark against Conte’s future at Stamford Bridge for months. Despite having 15 months to run on his contract, speculation remains rife that the Italian will leave at the end of the campaign, however the 48-year-old remains adamant that he is staying.
Should he stay, Conte will undertake a thorough evaluation of the players at his disposal and that includes the many who will return this summer from loan spells with other clubs. To his credit, the Blues boss has bucked the trend of his predecessors in that he has integrated players who had been out on loan into Chelsea’s first team.
Following loan spells with Liverpool, Stoke City and West Ham United, Victor Moses became Conte’s right wing-back of choice last season and the Nigeria international has retained his place in the side while so far this season centre-back Andreas Christensen — who’d gained invaluable experience on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach — has made 38 appearances.
Two Chelsea players who have been earning rave reviews while out on loan this season are versatile defender Kurt Zouma (Stoke City) and equally adaptable midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Crystal Palace).
Now 23, Zouma had established himself in the Blues first team during Jose Mourinho’s second stint as manager. The France international’s big moment came in the 2015 League Cup Final at Wembley when Mourinho deployed him as a defensive midfielder in place of suspended Nermanja Matic.
Zouma kept Spurs striker Harry Kane quiet and Chelsea went on to win 2-0. It was a nightmare a year later, though, in the form of an anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained in a Premier League game with Manchester United.
Chelsea re-signed Brazil international David Luiz from Paris Saint-Germain and brought in Germany international Antonio Rudiger from Roma. Last summer Zouma signed a long-term six-year contract with Chelsea and was sent out on loan to Stoke. Presumably the thinking here being that he would have plenty of defensive work to do at the bet365 and that’s the way it’s turned out as the Potters have waged a battle against relegation.
His 35 appearances in all competitions to date for Stoke are proof enough that Zouma is now fully recovered from his injury as indeed was a man-of-the-match performance at the weekend against Liverpool when he was fielded at right-back and helped keep Reds goal-machine Mohamed Salah and the rest of his teammates off the score sheet in a 0-0 draw.
It remains to be seen whether or not Zouma will make France manager Didier Deschamps squad for this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia but even if he doesn’t, he has shown he has the quality to be an asset to Chelsea next season.
Having starred for Crystal Palace in a loan spell so impressive that he was handed a full England debut in a friendly against Germany last November, 22-year-old Loftus-Cheek will be hopeful of making Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad. The unfortunate injury sustained recently by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has created a window of opportunity for Loftus-Cheek to further impress Southgate and a fine performance capped by a goal in Palace’s 5-0 rout of Leicester City at the weekend will have done his international chances no harm at all.
The woeful maiden season at the Bridge that £40 million signing Tiemoue Bakayoko has endured in midfield may well have played into Loftus-Cheek’s hands and he will be hopeful that Conte will be planning to bring him into Chelsea’s first team picture.
The one true unknown in the player equations is Conte and the manager’s position at Chelsea in general. Zouma and Loftus-Cheek have to stand a better chance of making it with the Blues next season if he remains. Should he depart, the next manager will have his own football philosophy and his own view about those players he needs to execute it which might not auger well for the on loan duo.
It’s a frustrating scenario for players and fans alike and unfortunately it’s repetitive.
It also goes a long way to explaining why many fail to make it at Chelsea and end up being sold on.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC’s Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco