Champions League

Conte’s New Headache

 • by James Nalton
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Chelsea eased back into the Champions League, winning their first match in the competition under Antonio Conte by six goals to nil. Opponents Qarabag are without doubt the minnows of the group, and possibly the competition as a whole, and the London club were given the perfect opportunity to make a good start in Group C.

The Italian was also able to rotate his side with few repercussions. He enters the new season facing a different proposition to the last during which they were able to win the league title without having midweek games in Europe to contend with. That’s one thing Conte could thank José Mourinho for.

“It’s normal when you have to play seven games in 21 days to rotate my players. I’m very calm about this because I trust my players,” he said earlier in the week.

Those who came into the side and impressed will now be hoping to keep their place for the big game against Arsenal at the weekend, and here’s where the man management part of the job will come into play.


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Gary Cahill returned from suspension, but unlike last season he now has competition for his place in the shape of Antonio Rüdiger. Andreas Christensen also came into the centre of the defence, playing the role normally occupied by David Luiz.

It’s likely that the Brazilian will return to the side in the league, but Conte is now showing willingness to use the 21-year-old Christensen who came through the club’s youth set up.

“I hear this [about squad depth] now after a good win but before, you criticised me after a lot of changes,” he told BT Sport, half joking.

“I think in that situation it is very important to give the chances, to give the opportunities to players like Christensen. Christensen is a young player from the academy.

Past Chelsea managers have used the club’s successful academy sparingly if at all, but it seems that Conte will give one or two of these players a chance as he rotates his side.

It is difficult for any of these players to stake a claim for a more permanent place in the side as the team will have been expected to win this game against Qarabag, and will have been expected to win it comfortably, as they did.

“If you win you’ve made the best decision, if you lose you’ve made the worst decision,” added the manager of his rotation policy, and although he will have to bring some players in and out of the side, he will always have something close to his preferred eleven in mind.

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New signing Davide Zappacosta scored an eye-catching goal from the right wing but admitted after the game that the strike as supposed to be a cross. However, the Italian whose signing went relatively under the radar this summer will now be pushing Victor Moses for a starting place, and this right wing-back position could be one of the areas where Conte could have doubts over which player is his strongest option.

Willian returned to the side after sitting on the bench in the previous game against Leicester, and while the makeup of the midfield and attack has varied slightly at the start of the season, including the use of a 3-5-1-1in the win at Tottenham, the return of Pedro gave the team a familiar 3-4-3 feel.

Eden Hazard is also back in the picture, so there are now a number of players fighting for those places in the attacking areas giving Conte a selection headache.

Including Michy Batshuayi, who started and scored against Qarabag, and though Àlvaro Morata has enjoyed a successful start to his career at the club, his Belgian understudy will be disappointed if he’s regularly on the bench, especially with a World Cup, for which his country have already qualified, on the horizon.

“They must understand that I trust my players. I have 17 senior players and every single player can have the chance to play,” said Conte.

“Batshuayi to score, Zappacosta’s first appearance here at Stamford Bridge – he played very well – and Hazard is trying to find his best form. We are happy to see him on the field.”

The midfield ranks are bolstered further by the arrival of Danny Drinkwater, as Chelsea’s transfer business revolved around adding depth to their squad. Their new man will also be hoping to start games sooner rather than later once he’s recovered from his calf injury, as he’ll also have World Cup hopes, with England.

A game such as this thrashing of Qarabag is great for the manager as he is able to rotate and still get the win, but for the players who come into the side it’s not ideal, as not matter how well they perform there will always be the caveat that it was against a poor quality side.

Despite this some will hope to keep their place for the high profile fixture against Arsenal on Sunday, and the likes of Zappacosta, Christensen, Batshuayi, and Pedro will be disappointed if they find themselves sitting on the bench.

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