Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma will take another step towards recovering from a serious knee injury when he makes his third appearance for the club's Under-21 side in the Checkatrade Trophy against Oxford United on Tuesday [8 November] at Stamford Bridge. The France international has already featured twice in the competition, but could complete just his first 90 minutes in nine months against the League One side.
Zouma has not played for the Blues first team since rupturing knee ligaments in the Premier League draw with Manchester United in February, after landing awkwardly following a clearing header. The 22-year-old underwent surgery to treat the injury ahead of his long road to recovery which this season has seen him train with the club's youth side.
The former Saint-Etienne centre-back made his first appearance against Derby County in October, playing the first 45 minutes before starting and finishing the draw with Everton Under-23s in Premier League 2. Tonight will see Zouma feature in the third-tier domestic cup competition for the first time this season as he attempts to ratchet up the intensity ahead of a senior return for Chelsea.
"It has been very nice to be back because I haven't played for such a long time," Zouma told the official Chelsea website. "I have been training with the development squad for a couple of weeks and I've enjoyed the experience a lot. They have some very good players so the training and matches have been very good.
"I have been going step by step with my rehabilitation and the games were a good test for me and my knee. It's been nice to be with the boys on a game day, travelling with them and trying to give out some good advice to them.
"We've played with three at the back in the last two games as well, which has been good for me to understand and learn the position a bit better. I've not played in that system much in my career but this is what the first team are using at the moment so it was good for me to experience it."
New Chelsea manager Antonio Conte signalled his intent to use Zouma upon his return by inviting him on the club's preseason training camp in Austria. Though he has minimal involvement in training sessions, he was allowed an insight in the Italian's methods during the early weeks of his career in west London.
"It's been a long time out, the longest injury of my career, but it's behind me now and it's time to look forward," added Zouma, who joined Chelsea in January 2014. "Injuries are a part of football and I've been lucky to have very good doctors and physios around me, plus my family behind me the whole time so it wasn't too difficult.
"I have always been mentally strong so I knew I could cope and I was just waiting for my time to come back. You want to be out on the pitch with your teammates but you have to be patient. I could see the time going quickly and I spent every day trying to be stronger and better than before.
"I'm looking forward to being back in our house, playing with the boys against a good team. "It will be a tough game but we're determined to win. It's another step for my rehabilitation so I hope to play well and show a good physical performance."