CHELSEA expect to have star striker Christopher Nkunku available for next week’s Carabao Cup semi-final decider against Middlesbrough.

With Nicolas Jackson unavailable because of his involvement at the Africa Cup of Nations, Nkunku’s absence with a hip problem meant that Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino had to field Cole Palmer as his central striker during last week’s first leg at the Riverside.

Palmer missed a host of chances as Boro triumphed 1-0, but Armando Broja did not fare any better in the ‘number nine’ as he produced an ineffective display in the Blues’ weekend win over Fulham.

Nkunku’s return for next Tuesday’s second-leg decider would be a major boost to Pochettino and his side, and the France international is set to step up his training programme this week in the intention of being available to face Boro.

Having joined Chelsea in a £52m move from RB Leipzig in the summer, Nkunku has managed just one start and two substitute appearances during his time as a Chelsea player.

He scored in the league defeat at Wolves on Christmas Eve though, and caught the eye during more than an hour on the field in the 2-1 win over Crystal Palace between Christmas and New Year.


Given Palmer and Broja’s struggles when leading the line, Pochettino will be tempted to start with Nkunku when Boro visit Stamford Bridge next week.

Chelsea have to win to have any chance of progressing to the final, with their manager admitting they will have to improve on their first-leg efforts on Teesside.

“We were disappointed with the last game (first leg), but it is just the first 90 minutes,” said Pochettino. “At the same time, though, we are Chelsea and we cannot afford to lose this type of game.

“We didn’t perform badly against Middlesbrough, and we came from a few victories. We are 1-0 down, but we need to keep the belief. I think the team is feeling well, and we are confident. Every single game should be a priority for us – we need to play every game like a final.

“It is difficult to be consistent and play the same every game, but we need to try. Of course, some situations we didn’t expect that happened made the situation more difficult. But we are going to do everything to perform (in the second leg) and create a solid team performance.”

Chelsea do not have a game this weekend, meaning they will have had a ten-day break by the time they host Boro. Michael Carrick’s side are in action on Saturday afternoon, hosting Rotherham United at the Riverside.