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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Champions Chelsea must now deal with midweek Champions League distractions

Last season's Premier League title success was built on a core group of experienced players and aided by a lack of midweek European assignments. Now the Italian must juggle the Uefa Champions League with trying to retain English title.

Antonio Conte, left, could well walk away in disillusionment by Christmas or win the league title two seasons in a row. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters
Antonio Conte, left, could well walk away in disillusionment by Christmas or win the league title two seasons in a row. Andrew Couldridge / Reuters

It is an enviable quality in a manager never to have eased his grip on a title. For three years at Juventus, his only three in charge of the club he led until 2014, Antonio Conte won the Italian title at every time of asking.

By the time he abruptly quit his reigning champions, it seemed his greater fear was not that Juventus would be toppled from their domestic summit but that success might become too routine.

There is a restlessness about the manager of Chelsea that is part a reflex against complacency and part the consequence of the pursuit of perpetual improvement.

Conte enters his second season as a Premier League manager with his record further polished and a far broader set of objectives than he did 12 months ago, when he took over a brittle squad who had just finished 10th in the table.

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He hoisted Chelsea back to first. None of the many, many managers employed in the reign of Roman Abramovich, the monied owner of the London club, has shown quite such a gift for alchemy.

English football, where so many serially successful managers are now concentrated, has come to recognise Conte as a trend-steer, too.

He made a back three tactically fashionable, and that alignment of defenders was his surprise springboard for Chelsea to turn from flaky and flimsy last September to capable of matching the highest number of successive wins in any Premier League campaign.

Last season Conte worked with a tight, restricted group of allies. He used just 14 outfield players between the end of the winter transfer window and clinching the title.

But for some studied choices over whether Cesc Fabregas’ creativity was best suited to a match scenario or the fixture needed to start with more rugged qualities of Nemanja Matic or a dilemma between the resurgent Pedro or the eager Willian, the first XI defined itself. Continuity, once Conte had established his 3-4-3 formation, was a strength.

It was also a luxury more easily given to a manager who had no midweek European assignments on his calendar. That changes now, and the Uefa Champions League, which Chelsea will go into as top seeds in the group phase, is a competition that used to vex Conte when he was leading Juventus to their series of Italian titles.

It will tax Chelsea’s resources, resources now shorn of Matic, sold to Manchester United, and, almost certainly of Diego Costa, the leading goalscorer last season and a footballer who, even if Conte found him difficult as an employee, has been a totem for the majority of his three years at Stamford Bridge, and at his best, one of the hardest strikers for Premier League defenders to contain.

Into the positions held by Matic and Costa come Tiemoue Bakayoko, who will probably miss the first games of the new season still recovering from injury, and Alvaro Morata, the Spain centre-forward.

That is youth replacing experience in both cases. Both players, and the new German defender Antonio Rudiger, 24, will need to adapt to a new league.

Rudiger joined from Roma, Bakayoko arrived from Monaco. Morata comes in from Real Madrid, who only a year ago bought him back from the Juventus he had joined from Madrid in 2014, thinking Conte would be his manager there; as it happened Conte left Juve suddenly, to take on the job as Italy manager.

So Morata, though he will be aware that Chelsea pursued Romelu Lukaku keenly, knows Conte is a long-term admirer.

Thus fortified, he has an opportunity to show that his role as an impact substitute at Madrid – a very effective one – last season was scant recognition of his excellence.

He may not have the growling tigerishness of Costa, but he has the same endeavour about him, a vigilance in the high press Conte requires, and power in the air. Conte’s wing-backs will be expected to provide quality crosses for the new target man.

Another notable absentee, at least in the dressing room, is John Terry. Conte used to praise the club captain’s leadership last season, even as it became apparent Terry was no longer deemed one of the squad’s top three central defenders.

Costa, for all his maverick independence, also gave Chelsea a certain drive.

The manager has plenty of that in his own skills set, but he can only do some much from his technical area.He will be looking for generals on the pitch and men who can marshall the club through Europe, as well as in domestic battles.

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