Reece James marked his return to fitness in style by helping Chelsea beat Burnley 4-0 in the Premier League on Saturday afternoon.
The Englishman had been out since December after suffering a hamstring injury in the Blues’ 1-1 draw with Brighton at Stamford Bridge and his absence clearly had an impact. Chelsea rely very heavily on their wing-backs so, with James and Ben Chilwell on the sidelines, they have been below par.
James made his comeback from injury in the EFL Cup final defeat to Liverpool, coming on for Cesar Azpilicueta in a forced change with Thomas Tuchel revealing the Englishman played more than he was supposed to.
A cameo against Luton followed in midweek but the real moment came when James made his first start for Chelsea in over two months at Turf Moor.
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The game as a whole wasn’t as straightforward as the scoreline may suggest, with Burnley on top in the first half and having the better chances to take the lead, but the Blues turned things up after half time.
It was James who got things underway, opening the scoring within two minutes of the restart, after receiving the ball inside the Burnley box. James turned the defending Dwight McNeil inside out before firing the ball through the bodies and past Nick Pope in the Burnley goal.
James has now scored five Premier League goals for the season, more than any other defender, which is remarkable considering he has missed two months through injury. But perhaps what is more remarkable is the fact that James is alone at the top of Europe.
Only one defender in Europe’s top five divisions has scored 5+ goals and provided 5+ assists in the league this season and that man is James. He then added a sixth league assist for the campaign, setting up Kai Havertz’s second and Chelsea’s third.
And Havertz was quick to praise James after the game, telling BBC: “He’s a special player for us, a very important player for us.
“He’s a full-back, but he also scores. He’s a great character and a very good player.”
Tuchel was also high in praise of James, adding: “It’s incredible how much quality he brings to the team. You keep forgetting it because he’s eight or nine weeks out and you get used to the situation.
“Then he comes back and you remember the influence he can have. It’s the same for Ben Chilwell. They’re hugely important for the structure of this team.”
Across all competitions this season, only Mason Mount has been directly involved in more goals for Chelsea than James’ 13, but the defender is now just two behind his compatriot who has played significantly more minutes.
It was an important win for Chelsea, putting them six points clear of Manchester United with a game in hand, tightening their grip in the race for a top-four finish.
And it will have eased some concerns after the Blues struggled to beat Championship side Luton in the FA Cup in midweek, with Chelsea looking close to their best under Tuchel in the second half. At just the right time too, with the Blues about to embark on a run of potentially difficult fixtures against teams fighting for their lives.