For the second time in 10 months, the focus fell on Armando Broja bellowing to the heavens on a football pitch. The contrast in his emotions, though, could not have been starker.
Last December, Broja had been screaming in agony. Chelsea were playing a friendly against Aston Villa in Abu Dhabi before the resumption of the Premier League following its World Cup break. The striker stretched to win the ball from defender Ezri Konsa in the Villa penalty area and, in doing so, ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
Against Fulham on Monday night, in Broja’s first start for Chelsea since that injury, his howl was the definition of pure joy.
The scenario had actually been similar though, on this occasion, Broja was rewarded far more handsomely for putting pressure on centre-back Tim Ream. The defender panicked after surrendering possession to Cole Palmer, but his attempted clearance cannoned off Broja’s right-footed lunge and deflected into the net to thrust Mauricio Pochettino’s side 2-0 ahead.
As he ran to celebrate, the Albania international let out a resounding “come on” and “yessssss”. After being congratulated by his team-mates, there was a pump of the arms and another roar of satisfaction. Understandably, this goal meant more to him than probably any other in his career.
A lot of hard work has gone into reaching this point. He resumed training on his own back in April, with that solitary rehabilitation continuing over the summer break. He then joined up with the club’s under-21s for their pre-season preparations in June before Pochettino started overseeing the senior squad’s sessions a few weeks later.
Broja was still left behind as the club departed for the United States for a series of friendly games, partly because he was not deemed ready yet to feature and also because the travel might not benefit his ongoing rehab. Yet his lack of involvement ensured there was another six-week wait to endure before he was considered ready for selection for the first team.
To have Broja fit and firing again represents a significant moment for Chelsea’s head coach Pochettino. You could see his delight in Broja’s performance when he took the 22-year-off in the 65th minute — a scheduled withdrawal given the player’s lack of competitive football. As Broja came to the touchline, Pochettino greeted him warmly and grasped his hand.
The head coach rates Broja highly. In August, he was asked about Chelsea’s need to buy another goalscorer after Christopher Nkunku suffered a knee injury of his own that could keep him out until the new year. “We are keeping one or two eyes on Armando Broja because we can’t forget him,” Pochettino said. “We cannot stop him, and to bring some profile of player… that can stop his evolution.
“We really believe in him. He can be a really important striker for Chelsea.”
Broja was also the subject of interest from elsewhere. Newcastle, Roma and AC Milan were among the clubs exploring the possibility of signing him, but their interest did not progress very far. Pochettino played a part in that.
Now both men have the chance to be rewarded.
Broja’s return means Pochettino has an option other than Nicolas Jackson, who was suspended against Fulham. Jackson has scored only twice since joining from Villarreal for just over €35million (£30.3m; $36.7m) in June. He has had to carry much of the burden of leading the Chelsea line-up to this point. The Albanian’s return will relieve some of that pressure from his shoulders, as well as provide him with much-needed competition.
Pochettino will now have the luxury of deciding whether to rotate the duo as well as replacing one with the other during games if things are not going according to plan or fatigue is beginning to set in.
One suspects Jackson will return to the side for the trip to Burnley on Saturday because Broja is still working his way back to full match fitness. He is unlikely to be able to play a full 90 minutes just yet, but Pochettino will have been hugely encouraged by his display at Fulham.
It was impressive how well Broja did given his lack of match practice. Pochettino had decided not to give him the opportunity to start games with the under-21s in recent weeks because he felt the player would be better off making substitute appearances for the first team instead. But Broja had featured for only 14 minutes (not including stoppage time) against Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion — not exactly great preparation for a derby game that Chelsea, with just five points from their opening six Premier League matches, needed to win.
Within 90 seconds, his lack of sharpness was evident as he shot wildly into the crowd after waltzing around Fulham goalkeeper Bernd Leno — even if the chance was far from straightforward, with Timothy Castagne, Antonee Robinson and Ream still blocking much of the goal. Likewise, the offside flag had also gone up so, barring an intervention by the VAR, it would not have counted had he converted anyway.
But his dogged determination to win the ball back and run on to Palmer’s pass had set the tone.
Broja gave Chelsea a physical presence up front — someone his team-mates could play off. He may not boast Jackson’s pace, but his clever runs and strength to hold off opponents provide something different. It was his combination with the impressive Conor Gallagher that led to Ian Maatsen crashing a fine shot off the post in the second half, with Enzo Fernandez unfortunate not to beat Leno from the rebound. But it was finding the net in the 19th minute that obviously made the biggest impact.
“I’m so happy for him,” Levi Colwill told The Athletic. “He was out for a long time and he has been working so hard. To come in and score… it’s the best way to come back.
“They (Broja and Jackson) are great strikers and to have that battle day in, day out for the starting position is going to be good for them. They are both going to learn and, when they come on the pitch, they have to take their chances.
“Armando’s got everything; he’s a problem (for defenders). I’d hate to play against him. He’s big, strong and takes his chances.”
At Fulham, he provided something this team had been lacking. Chelsea will need him to maintain that form if they are to continue their climb up the table.
(Top photo: Chris Lee – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)