Chelsea may be without Kante for Prem return - sources

Chelsea head boss Frank Lampard is facing up to the prospect of being without key midfielder N'Golo Kante for the Premier League's resumption next week, sources have told ESPN.

The Stamford Bridge outfit stepped up their preparations over the weekend with an intrasquad game at Stamford Bridge involving the vast majority of senior players including Christian Pulisic, Jorginho, Willian, Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount.

- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Insider Notebook: Man United chase 'The Octopus'

However, Kante was given permission to miss the match as he continues to express concerns over player safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 29-year-old has regularly attended the club's Cobham training base but only to follow an individual programme rather than joining in group sessions, despite the Premier League voting to return to contact training last month after agreeing a detailed protocol with medical advisors and the government.

Kante lost a brother to a heart attack shortly before the 2018 World Cup and suffered a health scare of his own two years ago when collapsing during training.

He is concerned about the risk of infection to other family members. Chelsea remain wholly supportive of Kante's stance and have not put him under any pressure whatsoever to return to group training.

However, there is an acknowledgement that clubs are entering the final stages of their preparations -- with the first Premier League match due to take place in just nine days -- and time is therefore running out to build up requisite fitness levels.

Medical experts from a raft of clubs highlighted the need for at least three weeks' contact training to minimise the risk of injury and although Kante is one of the fittest members of the squad, it would be a gamble to throw him in without group training.

Equally, the player himself may feel unsafe to take part, even though data from technology company STATSports shows the average duration of a player's incursion within two metres of another was 1.8 seconds, down from 3.3 seconds prior to measures implemented to combat COVID-19.

Sources have told ESPN he has not yet made a decision regarding whether he will make himself available for matches. Chelsea do not play a competitive game until travelling to Aston Villa on June 21.

However, Lampard is believed to be increasingly planning for a resumption without Kante as Chelsea look to secure Champions League qualification in their remaining nine matches.

Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley have often formed a midfield triumvirate in Kante's absence, although Mount has also played in a deeper position when not deployed on the left flank.

The club are hopeful Kante will be convinced to return for some -- if not all -- of the run-in with the wider coronavirus picture also a factor. The rate of deaths in the United Kingdom is continuing to fall but passed a total of 40,000 last week.