Chelsea urged to hold firm by Conte

David Luiz, who is central to Antonio Conte's reshaped back three, is still suffering the after-effects of Sergio Aguero's challenge during the game against Manchester City last Saturday.
David Luiz, who is central to Antonio Conte's reshaped back three, is still suffering the after-effects of Sergio Aguero's challenge during the game against Manchester City last Saturday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Blues' boss wants renewed focus on crushing West Brom to underline status as favourites

LONDON • Antonio Conte has called on Chelsea to underline their status as favourites for the Premier League title with an dominant display against West Bromwich Albion today.

Conte's side are looking for their ninth straight win following last weekend's impressive triumph at title rivals Manchester City.

The Blues have scored 22 goals and conceded just two in their winning streak, but the Chelsea manager believes he will have a clearer picture of his team's title chances at the end of the busy Christmas programme.

Pointing out that Chelsea started the season as also-rans in the title race according to many pundits, Conte called on them to prove they can cope with the pressure of leading from the front.

"It's difficult to accept (being favourites) because we have played only 14 games," he said as the Blues entered the weekend in top spot.

"We started as underdogs this season, but I suppose it's normal if you're playing good football and winning a lot of games. It's important to continue, that from this win we don't lose our hunger."

CONTINUING SEQUENCE OF SUCCESS

We started as underdogs this season, but I suppose it's normal if you're playing good football and winning a lot of games. It's important to continue, that from this win we don't lose our hunger.

ANTONIO CONTE, Chelsea manager, on the pressure of leading from the front at this early stage of the Premier League season.

On paper, Chelsea have a golden opportunity to head into the new year in pole position as their fixtures after the West Brom clash are against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City.

But Conte stressed the importance of focusing only on the next opponent, particularly as Tony Pulis' side arrive in London in confident mood after winning three of their last four matches.

"This league has taught me that every game is very tough," he said. "If you don't face every game with great concentration and preparation you can find yourself in trouble. Sunday is the type of game we can find difficult if we don't put the same concentration, the same focus, that we had in the previous games."

Yet seven games in four weeks and a late fitness test to discern the availability of David Luiz could force Conte to make changes to his line-up.

He has made just eight changes to his starting XI all season - the fewest in the Premier League.

Luiz, a permanent fixture in the Chelsea side, has been one of the key performers in the team's renewed defensive discipline over recent weeks as the central pivot in the reshaped back three.

But Conte revealed that the Brazil international is still suffering discomfort from City striker Sergio Aguero's "dangerous" challenge last Saturday.

Should Luiz be sidelined with a left knee problem, it will be a loss for the Blues. Luiz has been flourishing because he is the player with the most freedom in the Chelsea team when Conte employs a 3-4-3 system, former Blues manager Ruud Gullit told the BBC.

Without any player to mark, Luiz is utilised more as a sweeper and can play to his strengths - bringing the ball out or playing it forward, which is crucial to Chelsea's counter-attacking game.

Conte also has to decide if Nemanja Matic, expected to return from a calf strain, partners N'Golo Kante in midfield or if Cesc Fabregas, who impressed at the Etihad Stadium in his first start in more than two months, retains his place.

"We'll have three games in seven days this week and, for this reason, it's important to have all the squad, all the players in good form," said the Italian. "I could take the decision to have more rotation."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN

CHELSEA V WEST BROM

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Chelsea urged to hold firm by Conte'. Print Edition | Subscribe