Careful management required by Chelsea's Antonio Conte with Roma and then Manchester United on the horizon
Match at Stadio Olimpico will be Italian's first match back in his homeland since departing national team job last year
Antonio Conte spent the best part of the summer bemoaning the depth of his Chelsea squad.
Targets failed to land and players were allowed to leave, some even to direct Premier League rivals.
It has followed Conte throughout the season, primarily because it is a theme the Italian continually returns to. He did so again last month, before and after Chelsea had secured a hugely impressive victory at Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Champions League.
Less than three days later, the English champions took on Manchester City, the greatest threat to their Premier League throne. Conte complained about the short turnaround and Chelsea lost to Pep Guardiola’s slick side. The 1-0 scoreline did not reflect truly the match. City won comfortably.
This week seems as significant, if not more. It provides another titanic test of Conte’s coaching credentials and of the resources at his disposal. On Tuesday, Chelsea face Roma at the Stadio Olimpicio in the Champions League, in the reversal of the 3-3 draw played out in West London earlier this month. A challenging match in its own right, it comes not long before Sunday’s high-profile Premier League clash at home to Manchester United.
This time, Chelsea have a greater period to recover than they did following their trip to Madrid. Yet understandably Conte considers the week as “pivotal”. The United fixture looms large.
That is not to disregard Roma. Not when Conte is taking Chelsea to his homeland for the first time since leaving his post as Italy manager last year. Not when, either, a genuine Juventus luminary, both as player and manager, is pitted in direct battle with the old enemy.
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Not when, too, Roma proved more than capable combatants when the teams met at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago. Then, the Italians did not quite conquer London, but they displayed a muscularity and a mental fortitude to rebound from two goals down to snatch a point. In reality, they should have won the match late on.
So, even with Champions League progression likely - Chelsea sit top of Group C at the halfway stage and would advance with a win - Roma represent a significant hurdle to overcome. Having United on the horizon presumably makes it a more difficult match to manage. Whereas Chelsea are well set in Europe, the same cannot be said domestically. Ten games into their title defence, they sit fourth, trailing leaders City by nine points. Lose to second-placed United on Sunday, and the gap to Jose Mourinho’s men would increase to seven.
Asked if this week could transform Chelsea’s season, Conte said: "For sure we have to try to do this. It won't be easy, but first of all we have to go game by game. Now the most important game for us is Roma in the Champions League. Then after this we must start to think about Manchester United."
Once more, Conte’s careful management of his squad is required. The return of N’Golo Kante is therefore welcome, should the midfielder shake off the aftereffects of a hamstring injury sustained playing for France earlier this month. It is hoped, also, that Alvaro Morata rediscovers the form he showed before a similar injury. The Spaniard is without a goal in four games.
However, successive victories in the Premier League against Watford and Bournemouth, either side of a League Cup triumph against Everton, will have boosted Conte’s players. Yet, similarly, Roma have won three on the bounce since their draw at Chelsea. Now on familiar terrain and with a familiar foe in the dugout, they will look to build on their brightness at the Bridge.
For Chelsea, another successful Champions League away-day would set them up for what feels a seismic showdown with United this Sunday. Conte’s squad may seem stretched, but the restorative powers of a result in Rome could propel them forward.
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Updated: October 30, 2017 08:25 PM