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Why next season will be the acid test for Antonio Conte at Chelsea

Rob Meech

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After a gruelling 38-game Premier League season, the table never lies. Chelsea’s coronation as champions of England will officially take place at Stamford Bridge against relegated Sunderland this Sunday. In truth, the destiny of the title was decided long ago. The Blues’ stunning run of form during the winter months kept their challengers, headed by Tottenham Hotspur, firmly at bay and ensured Antonio Conte celebrated success in his first term as Chelsea boss.

The tactical switch to a 3-4-3 formation was a masterstroke that transformed the Blues, whose early-season form had even engendered speculation that Conte’s job was under threat. How laughable that suggestion seems in hindsight. The Italian arrived on these shores as the newest addition to the phalanx of ‘super managers’ that pilot the Premier League’s elite clubs, but without the fanfare that accompanied the appointment of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Despite having no prior experience of English football, Conte has outshone all his contemporaries in spectacular fashion by leading Chelsea to their fifth Premier League crown.

Conte came to prominence during the 2016 European Championship, where his passion and touchline histrionics as Italy head coach endeared him to football fans throughout Europe. Twelve months later, the 47-year-old has proved he has the substance to match his style. Under his leadership, Chelsea have claimed maximum points in 29 of 37 matches. They have scored more goals than any other team while boasting the second-best defensive record. In short, their flamboyance has been underpinned by a resoluteness which has made for an irresistible force.

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Next season will be the acid test for Conte. While highly deserving of the accolades he has received, fortune has favoured him. Chelsea have avoided the serious injuries that have afflicted their competitors. Key players such as N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have been available to spearhead the London club’s challenge throughout the entire campaign. And, most importantly, the absence of European football has enabled the Italian to name a settled starting XI without fear of his players suffering from burnout. How will he juggle his resources when domestic and European matches are coming thick and fast?

In less than one year, Conte has become a cult figure among the Stamford Bridge faithful. In many respects, he is reminiscent of a young Jose Mourinho; gregarious, charismatic and charming. The Portuguese elevated Chelsea to a new level during his first spell in charge of the club and Conte has the credentials to chart a similar course. But it will not be straightforward. His rivals will redouble their efforts this summer and his methods will no longer be an unknown quantity. The battle for supremacy will only intensify.

Rob is a freelance writer, specialising in football, who previously worked as a sports journalist at the Dorset Echo. A long-standing AFC Bournemouth supporter, Rob can often be found on the terraces at the Vitality Stadium. Follow him on Twitter - @RobMeech

Chelsea

Why Chelsea’s striker search is less underwhelming than supporters believe

Jake Jackman

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Chelsea
Photo: Reuters

Chelsea are determined to strengthen their squad options during the January transfer window and a striker appears to be top of their wanted list. The Blues have been linked to a number of players in recent days and some of the names mentioned have caused amusement for fans on social media.

Even the club’s own supporters have questioned the motives of Antonio Conte and the board, as a few of the rumours are unambitious. However, all of the strikers being linked have similar profiles and that should be encouraging for everybody connected to the Blues.

Antonio Conte is known to be a perfectionist and that can be seen in his recruitment since taking over at Stamford Bridge. Every player that he has brought in has been signed for a reason and he tailors his signings to suit the needs of the squad.

The Italian won’t be influenced by big names and glamour deals, as he wants to have complete control at Stamford Bridge. Marquee signings and big characters don’t help in that.

During the summer, it was surprising that Chelsea signed Alvaro Morata ahead of their former striker Romelu Lukaku. For a long time, it looked destined for the Belgian international to return to Stamford Bridge, but Conte favoured the more level-headed Spaniard.

It can be debated whether that was the right decision or not, but it is easy to see the motives behind the choice.

Although Lukaku is an incredible athlete and a good goal-scorer, Conte would have questioned his mentality and ability to consistently perform for a big club. Morata may never have been a regular starter for either Real Madrid or Juventus, but he had the experience of playing at the highest level.

It was a signing with less risk attached. The Spanish international was less selfish and prepared to work hard for the team. For all of the reasons discussed, the Chelsea manager decided that he was a better fit for his team.

It has become clear that Conte wants another striker to compete with Alvaro Morata, but he doesn’t want to change his system. That is why Michy Batshuayi doesn’t feature more regularly, despite scoring a goal every 96.5 minutes across the major two competitions this season.

The Belgian international was signed to much fanfare, but it was a move that made little tactical sense for the club and they will be desperate not to make a similar error. Some supporters have called for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as he looks set to join Arsenal, but he wouldn’t be a great fit in this Chelsea squad. Therefore, he would be a waste of money.

Who are they trying to bring in?

The Blues are trying to sign a powerful striker that can dominate in the air and bring the midfield into the game. Alvaro Morata is excellent at linking-up play, but he is more mobile than those being linked to the club during this window.

It seems that Conte’s ‘plan B’ would be more direct and a player that can bully the opposition is what fits the bill. He wanted Fernando Llorente as a back-up striker during the summer, but he lost out to Tottenham. The Independent report that the club could be set to try again for the Spaniard. A player of his profile can be expected to arrive before the deadline.

There has been scorn thrown at a number of the players being linked to Chelsea, but Edin Dzeko would be viewed as a good signing if he was to arrive. The Telegraph report that the Blues are in talks over a deal and that could see Batshuayi move in the opposite direction.

This would be a good signing, as the Bosnian international has Premier League experience and his return of 12 goals across the Serie A and the Champions League is impressive. At the age of 31, he would provide fierce competition to Morata and should be available for a reasonable fee.

Those two would be met with the most positivity by supporters as they have both proven themselves at a high level. Llorente is already carrying out a similar role at Tottenham and has performed well whenever he has had the chance. He would likely be used more at Chelsea, due to Morata not being as consistent as Harry Kane, but he would be good enough to do a job at Stamford Bridge.

However, it has been the other strikers being linked that have raised eyebrows. Sky Sports reported that Andy Carroll was a loan target for the club before his latest injury setback. Meanwhile, the Mirror report that Chelsea have made enquiries about Stoke City striker Peter Crouch.

Neither are Champions League level talents, but they are reliable players. It would be a disappointment if the club couldn’t secure better, but as squad players for a short-term basis, they could contribute. Their homegrown status coupled with prices would make them appealing as a stop-gap solution for Conte.

The desire to bring in a striker this month suggests that Conte is ready to cut ties with Batshuayi before the deadline. Dzeko would be his priority target as he could offer the most competition to Morata. However, if a deal can’t be agreed with Roma, which would be understandable considering how important the Bosnian is to their team, they will have to move down their list of targets.

Peter Crouch or Andy Carroll won’t set the world alight and there will be jokes made on social media if either were to sign. That said, it is encouraging to see a manager source targets based on profile rather than reputation. Chelsea don’t have to make major tactical changes to implement any one signing and the same can’t often be said about the rest of the top six.

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Brighton and Hove Albion

Brighton 0–4 Chelsea: Three talking points from the Amex Stadium

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Photo: Reuters

Chelsea secured their first Premier League win of 2018 as two goals inside the first six minutes helped see off Brighton and Hove Albion in a lively encounter at the Amex Stadium on Saturday.

Without a win in their last six matches – and without the services of the suspended Alvaro Morata and Pedro – the visitors went in front on three minutes when Eden Hazard found space in the penalty area to send a thunderous strike past Mat Ryan.

And Antonio Conte’s men struck again just moments later, with Willian lashing home after some wonderful one-touch build-up play from Hazard and Michy Batshuayi outside of the Brighton box.

Brighton responded courageously for the rest of the half though, with two penalty shouts being waved away – somewhat controversially – by referee Jon Moss either side of a superb Willy Caballero save from Tomer Hemed’s close-ranger header.

The hosts came out firing after the break too, with Davy Propper sending a header crashing off the woodwork, before Chelsea struck the post themselves when Willian’s free-kick was palmed by Ryan.

Despite Brighton’s endeavours it was the visitors who secured the three points late on, with the imperious Hazard grabbing his second of the afternoon before Victor Moses slotted home in the last minute.

The result sees Chelsea leapfrog Liverpool back into third place in the table – at least until Monday night – whilst Brighton remain in 16th, just two points clear of the relegation zone.

Relieved Chelsea return to winning ways in style

At the sixth time of asking, Chelsea have won a game in 2018.

The over-riding feeling may well be of relief for Antonio Conte and his team but on the day Chelsea didn’t play like a side devoid of confidence, playing some blistering football on their way to their win.

After scoring just one goal in their past four games they managed two in just six minutes, well and truly flying out of the blocks to shock the home team and earn a commanding early advantage before all of the supporters had taken their seats at the Amex.

The hosts simply couldn’t handle Chelsea’s counter-attacking play, with Eden Hazard in particular looking dangerous whenever he was on the ball, and Brighton struggled to keep him at arms’ length.

The Belgian was imperious, scoring twice, completing eight take-ons, creating three chances and generally just running the show, and Chelsea’s success this season – and their top-four challenge – will be largely determined by whether Hazard can continue in this vein of form.

It wasn’t all good news, mind.

At times they were defensively lacking, allowing Brighton too many clear sights of goal, and on another day – against a better attack – they might’ve been made to pay.

Yet, in the same manner, it could have been an even more flattering score-line in Chelsea’s favour on the day had it not been for a string of smart saves from Mat Ryan in the Brighton goal, and Chelsea will go into Wednesday’s Carabao Cup deciding leg against Arsenal in good spirits and with hope of progressing to the final next month.

Brighton draw another blank as Locadia lies in wait

Late on Friday evening, Brighton announced a new club-record signing for the second time in a matter of months as 24-year-old Dutch striker Jurgen Locadia made the move from PSV Eindhoven.

The former-PSV man has an excellent pedigree in front of goal, scoring nine times in 15 Eredivisie games this season, but he wouldn’t have been too impressed with his new team after six minutes.

At 2-0 down there was already a mountain to climb for Chris Hughton’s side, and with only one win in 12 Premier League games prior to kick-off – and considering that the Seagulls had failed to score on 12 separate occasions this season – it was always going to be a tough task for the promoted side.

And whilst that record extended to 13 score-less games out of 24 by the time the full-time whistle went, the final score at the Amex does little to paint a picture of how the match went.

Many would have expected another home capitulation, similar to their 5-1 defeat against Liverpool before Christmas, but that wasn’t to be the case this time around as from the moment Chelsea doubled the lead inside ten minutes Brighton were superb in taking the game to their opponents.

Willy Caballero was forced into an excellent reflex save on the hour mark to deny Tomer Hemed’s close-range header, Davy Propper saw a header bounce back off the crossbar and the excellent Ezequiel Schelotto saw a shot smothered as the Seagulls seemingly did everything but find the net.

Would Locadia’s presence have made a difference?

Looking at it, it probably would have done. There were times where Chelsea’s defence were at sixes and sevens, and the hosts created a constant stream of good chances.

But whilst Brighton ultimately have nothing to show for their dogged efforts it was a display that earnt deserved plaudits and offers a renewed sense of hope for the rest of the season.

With a good performance against the reigning champions behind them, and with a new signing raring to go, Brighton are well-equipped for a critical run of games to come next against Southampton, West Ham, Stoke City and Swansea City in their battle to avoid the drop.

Willian celebrates 50 not out with sumptuous strike

For a team where the likes of Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata and Pedro consistently find themselves grabbing the headlines, it’s their Brazilian outlet Willian who is an ever-present in the Chelsea team.

Saturday lunchtime’s trip to Brighton signalled the 50th consecutive time that the 29-year-old has taken to the field in the Premier League, and whilst Chelsea have found it tough going since the beginning of 2018 Willian’s been impressing with four assists and three goals in his past five starts.

His latest instalment was arguably his best yet, too.

Out of nowhere Chelsea defied their recent woes with Willian, Michy Batshuayi and Eden Hazard producing some brilliant one-touch football on the edge of the Brighton penalty area before the Brazilian shifted the ball to one side and lashed past a helpless Mat Ryan.

It was the sort of move that wouldn’t have looked out of place in their title-winning exploits last season such was the quality and tempo of it, and it shocked the home fans in the Amex into silence.

With all of the talk of the past few days surrounding potential January moves for Andy Carroll and Peter Crouch – two players who can add a new and a far more direct dimension to Chelsea’s offensive play – both Willian and Hazard showed that there may not be a need to panic buy just yet.

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Chelsea

Chelsea 0-0 Leicester City: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech

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Chelsea
Photo: Reuters

Chelsea remain winless in 2018 after Antonio Conte’s misfiring charges recorded their third successive goalless draw.

Despite having a numerical advantage for the final 20 minutes following Ben Chilwell’s red card, the Blues could not find a winning goal against a Leicester City side that enjoyed prolonged spells of dominance.

Chelsea have now played more than 270 minutes of football in all competitions without scoring and have dropped to fourth place in the Premier League table as a result of Liverpool’s victory over Manchester City. Leicester remain eighth and continue their good form since Claude Puel’s appointment as manager.

Here are three talking points…

Chelsea’s goal scoring problems are mounting

Much has been written about Alvaro Morata’s goalscoring drought, which extended to five matches after he failed to register a single effort in this clash, but Chelsea’s goalscoring issues go much deeper.

Since the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on January 3, the Blues have failed to find the back of the net. None of the top six clubs have scored fewer than Chelsea’s current tally of 41 Premier League goals for the season.

There is no doubt the burden has rested heavily on Morata and when he was in fine form during the first few months of the campaign, Chelsea were often rampant. But the Spaniard’s barren spell has coincided with a downturn in the Blues’ effectiveness.

The problem for Conte is he has little faith in back-up striker Michy Batshuayi. There is no other obvious candidate to act as the focal point, although the Italian has previously experimented with a false number nine.

Defensively, Chelsea are very solid, but that counts for little when they fail to score.

Leicester grab a point despite Chilwell’s red

It’s not often a player receives two yellow cards in a matter of minutes, but that’s exactly the fate that befell Leicester’s Ben Chilwell.

After being cautioned for a foul on Willian, the Leicester man then received a second booking only five minutes later for bringing down Victor Moses.

Both fouls were fairly innocuous and Chilwell’s dismissal disrupted the Foxes’ performance, which had threatened to claim all three points at Stamford Bridge.

Leicester boss Puel was critical of Mike Jones’ decision to send off Chilwell, which may have come under more scrutiny had Chelsea gone on to win the game.

As it was, the visitors held out for a point, which was the least they deserved. Jamie Vardy twice went close to breaking the deadlock and Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois had to be alert throughout.

This was definitely not a rearguard display – Leicester created numerous chances and were keen to take the game to their high-flying opponents.

Tiredness to blame – Conte

Chelsea boss Conte blamed tiredness for his side’s failure to win for the fourth game in a row. This fixture came just three days after their Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal, amid a run of seven games in 21 days.

The Blues return to action again against Norwich City for an FA Cup third round replay on Wednesday night. In total, Chelsea will play eight games in January after playing nine in December.

There’s no doubt it is a punishing schedule, but Chelsea are not alone in that regard. A club with their squad depth should be able to cope. Conte has rotated his squad, particularly for the cup games, and is sure to field a much-changed side for the Norwich replay.

Of course, if the Blues were winning matches there would be no need to raise the fatigue element as an excuse.

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