Blues have no Plan B without Morata

LONDON • Antonio Conte says striker Alvaro Morata is likely to miss Spain's matches over the forthcoming international break after he was substituted 35 minutes into Chelsea's 1-0 defeat by Manchester City on Saturday with a hamstring injury, but he does not believe the setback is "serious".

"It's a muscular problem," Conte said. "I don't think it's a serious problem because he stopped before it becomes a serious injury. He said to me, 'Coach, I prefer to stop myself otherwise I risk a bad injury.'

"The doctor now in the next (few) days has to check the situation, but I don't think he's available for the national team."

Morata, 24, had been named in Julen Lopetegui's squad for the World Cup qualifying matches against Albania and Israel, with Spain requiring four points to be certain of qualification for Russia.

Conte admitted that he had wavered over starting Morata, who had played from the start twice in the previous seven days, against Stoke City and Atletico Madrid.

"You have to try to not put your players in difficulty," Conte said.

"I make this decision to risk Morata in this game, because imagine if I decide to put Morata on the bench."

That rather mordant comment, coming on the heels of his decision to replace Morata with Willian, leaving Chelsea without a recognised striker on the pitch, suggests that Conte remains lukewarm on the credentials of Michy Batshuayi, despite the striker scoring the winner in Chelsea's Champions League win over Atletico last Wednesday.

The Batshuayi situation is an increasingly curious one.

Conte has often given the impression that he regards the Belgian more as a prospect for the future rather than someone who can be trusted at present.

Many of his comments on Batshuayi have been couched in terms of the striker's youth or callowness, but that excuse feels like it is wearing increasingly thin when Batshuayi is 23 and Conte has trusted 21-year-old Andreas Christensen to step into the centre of his back three.

Batshuayi is not some ingenue - he is older than Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Gabriel Jesus. Nor has he disgraced himself in his appearances for Chelsea, averaging a goal every 76 minutes for the club.

The impression is that Conte does not rate his all-round contribution, and his ability to lead the line and bring others into play, but it is hard to gel with your team-mates when you rarely play with them.

However ugly his estrangement, Chelsea could have chosen to keep Diego Costa, but instead decided to offload him to Atletico. That means Batshuayi is the back-up centre forward in the squad.

Conte appears optimistic that Morata will be fit by the time the Premier League resumes on Oct 14. Did he rue not bringing on Batshuayi earlier on Saturday?

"No, honestly, we can't have regrets," he said.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2017, with the headline 'Blues have no Plan B without Morata'. Print Edition | Subscribe