Hobbling off the pitch at Sofia’s Vasil Levski Stadium, N’Golo Kante seemed to be carrying Antonio Conte’s hopes for a harmonious autumn along with him.
Another key player, and another hamstring injury: this looked far from good for Chelsea’s domestic and European campaigns.
Kante has been integral to what has made the last two Premier League champions. The newly Ballon d’Or longlisted midfielder’s efforts have been perhaps more key to each of those unexpected titles at The King Power and Stamford Bridge than any other player.
And initial social media reports of a grade two tear did not look promising.
As Benjamin Mendy memorably pointed out the other week, every two-bit pundit on Twitter thinks he’s a surgeon now. So knowing that Alvaro Morata’s own hamstring issues, declared by the Spanish FA a grade two tear, would mean a six to eight week lay-off: the obituaries were duly written for Kante’s calendar year, and thus Chelsea’s season.
Except all of that information was questionable: some of it patently false; some of it open to a second, differing opinion. Nobody can call a grade two hamstring tear in the first hours after an injury: scans aren’t even usually taken until the following day; and swelling needs to subside before any realistic diagnosis can be made.
Kante was the victim of fake news: some joker pretending to be a trusted source, piping nonsense around social media. It transpires a three week lay-off is a more likely scenario: with him certainly missing the trip to Selhurst Park on Saturday. And that is something else which somewhat tempers the blow.
Palace are terrible. No, even worse than that.
Every team must respect and prepare for the side they are abut to face, but Roy Hodgson’s side still don’t know where their first point and goal are coming from, let alone their next. Cesc Fabregas, Kante’s likely replacement alongside Tiemoue Bakayoko, has provoked much debate as an option for the Premier League’s tougher foes.
But in a game like this, he should find the space to breathe, and Kante’s absence could not have come at a more forgiving time.
Then there is the matter of Morata, and his own ‘grade two’ tear. Chelsea’s medical team have a different view on the matter, especially having the knowledge of the precautionary reasons behind his early withdrawal against Manchester City.
Again, not an option for Palace (where Michy Batshuayi will deputise); but there is real hope he will play a part in the home Champions League match against Roma, four days later. Win that game (Roma only just edged past Qarabag), and Chelsea take a five-point lead after three matches: making the group as good as theirs.
And, all of a sudden, things don’t look quite so bad.
Injuries will crop up from time to time: especially now Chelsea are back into the routine of playing twice a week, while in Europe. And Chelsea’s thin squad does call for managerial creativity, and multi-tasking by players. But reports of the untimely demised of Chelsea’s season, based on two unconfirmed injury reports, seem somewhat premature.