Whatever happens in the final few weeks of this drawn-out campaign, Kurt Zouma has already made sure it is the most productive season of his senior career to date, having featured in defence 38 times for Frank Lampard’s Chelsea already this term.
The Frenchman has rebooted his standing at Stamford Bridge under Lampard after two seasons on loan, banishing the memories of the horrible knee injury that halted the progress of a promising first 18 months in England.
He is the centre-back with the most Premier League minutes, with only captain Cesar Azpilicueta among the Blues defenders having played more and, with the team sat in third with just two matches remaining, the 25-year-old tentatively agrees that he is enjoying a positive year back in SW6.
‘I think it’s going well,’ he tells the official Chelsea website as we catch up ahead of the FA Cup semi-final. ‘I’ve been playing a lot so I’m very happy with my game time but I don’t like to talk too much about myself.
‘I think the team are having a great season. At the minute, we’re third and in the semi-finals of the FA Cup so we’ve still got a lot to play for. We have to be confident and go into the game with the mindset to win.’
The focus right now is on the challenge of beating Manchester United for a place in the FA Cup final. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men were the opponents for Lampard’s first game in charge back in August, the match that kicked off this most unprecedented of campaigns.
Zouma started that day at Old Trafford alongside Andreas Christensen in a back four, his first Chelsea appearance for 27 months after spells on loan at Stoke City and Everton following his rehabilitation after knee surgery. More than half the starting 11 from his previous runout in blue had moved on but he admits there was never any issue with reintegrating into the group.
‘When I came back, I just met the guys that I knew before, especially the young guys,’ he explains. ‘I trained with them a lot when I was injured so when I saw them breaking through into the first team, I was very happy for them. I saw their quality already back in the day when I was training with them.
‘It didn’t feel new for me because Chelsea is Chelsea. I had been here for three years before I went on loan and won trophies here so when I came back, I just picked up again. Everything was nice, the people are good and I feel like I have so many friends here so it’s cool.’
One man he is particularly close to is Toni Rudiger, ‘the big brother’ of the dressing room according to Zouma, and a defensive colleague he has developed a decent centre-back partnership with. The pair have kept four consecutive clean sheets alongside each other in all competitions, including in our past two FA Cup victories over Leicester City and Liverpool.
‘Rudi is one of my friends,’ Zouma continues. ‘On and off the pitch, he’s the guy who has a lot of personality, he gives advice to the young guys and he’s always there to make people smile. He’s got that older brother behaviour where he looks after everybody.
‘I’ve been playing with Andreas and Fikayo [Tomori] as well so I feel really good with all of them. The competition is there so we have to train well to get some game time.’
The restart has been relentless for the players, with this afternoon’s trip to Wembley our ninth game in four weeks. There is little time or provision to recover in the usual way, with Lampard’s previous emphasis on the importance of the squad clearly evident in the changes that have been made both in between and during matches.
‘For every team, it’s been quite tough because we didn’t have the same preparation like the beginning of a season and we’re playing every three days,’ admits Zouma. ‘They’re tough games as well so for the legs it’s difficult but we have to get through it and we want to finish on a high.
‘We have five subs in every game so the manager can make lots of changes and that can make a difference. That’s why he wants us to stay ready, train very well and to prepare for every game so that’s what we do.’
The FA Cup is the only domestic trophy Zouma has yet to lift but in-form United represent the trickiest of opponents, having not lost since late January.
‘Of course I want to win it and the team want to win it,’ he says. ‘As soon as I came to England, I knew what the FA Cup was and how it’s a big competition to win so we will try to win it.
‘We know there are two tough games left so we have to go step by step and think about the semi-final first. It’s going to be very difficult because we’re going to face a great team but I think we have everything to win it because we have got quality players in our team as well. We just have to play well and think about ourselves.’
United have beaten the Blues three times already this campaign and, though Zouma acknowledges there are lessons to learn from those defeats, he does not believe they will have any bearing on this latest clash.
‘There were different circumstances in those games,’ he adds. ‘I know the first one we lost by four goals and it was a bad game from us but in the other two games we deserved more. Football is football - they won three times and we cannot afford to lose another time but it’s a different game.
‘It’s a semi-final so it doesn’t matter what happened in the past. Everything happens on the pitch and we will try to do our best out there.
‘They have some great players but they will have to be defensively on form as well because we have players up front who can hurt them too. It’s going to be a great game, a big pitch and big stadium, even if there are no fans to enjoy it.
‘We’re prepared for a tough game but the motivation is there for us. It’s going to be difficult but we want to win and we’re going to do everything we can to win.’
Can you name our past FA Cup semi-final opponents