F365’s early winners: Antonio Conte and his squad

Date published: Wednesday 13th September 2017 6:00

‘How on earth have the Premier League champions got into this pickle with the season just days from starting?’ asked the Daily Mail’s Matt Barlow on July 31 just (12) days before the start of the season, and a full month before the end of the transfer window. The ‘pickle’ in question was that Chelsea had apparently allowed 17 players to leave. Which sounds like an awful lot until you realise he had included John Obi Mikel, Branislav Ivanovic and Kasey Palmer in an effort to reach a MASSIVE number.

The truth was that Chelsea had allowed two key members of their title-winning squad to leave, both of which had been replaced. They had not yet finalised their squad, and were perhaps a little tardy in doing so, but rumours of both pickle and crisis were woefully wide of the mark. On Tuesday, Chelsea displayed the full power of their now-enviable squad when they made five changes for their opening Champions League tie and sprinted past the opposition with acres of room to spare.

Conte could not have planned it better – engineering a total rest for key players Alvaro Morata and David Luiz, almost-total rest for new signings Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko, just enough rest for his reliable machines N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta, a confidence boost for Michy Batshuayi, a fillip for Andreas Christensen, another half-hour for Eden Hazard and a new hero in Davide Zappacosta. It may have been a cruise against Qarabag, but it was a cruise that leaves his squad suitably refreshed ahead of Sunday’s Premier League clash with Arsenal.

The Chelsea manager had spoken of the difficulty in negotiating seven games in 21 days; on Tuesday he showed he has the squad to match his considerable nous. This is a very different challenge for Conte; this season he cannot afford to alienate Batshuayi, sideline Willian or assume that Cesc Fabregas will again quietly consent to a bit-part role. After a campaign when the Italian could don his blinkers, concentrate on his key players and allow momentum to do the rest, this season is about real management and real coaching. The challenge is not to turn Morata into a 20-goal striker, but to turn Morata into a 20-goal striker and ensure Batshuayi a) scores ten goals and b) is more than happy to do so.

“My message tonight was this: I trust all my players, not with only words, but with facts. If we think like last season to play with only 13 players we are crazy,” said Conte after the 6-0 win over Qarabag. “We have to improve all these players to try and create a good competition, a positive competition, between them. It’s very important.”

We are now a month into the new season and Chelsea sit just one point from the top of the Premier League and top of their Champions League group, having given significant minutes to 16 senior players and with Hazard yet to return to full fitness and Danny Drinkwater yet to feature at all. It doesn’t feel like a pickle.

Sarah Winterburn


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