Conte to shuffle his pack for Qarabag

Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata (left) celebrating with Marcos Alonso after scoring the first goal against Leicester. The Blues’ new signing has scored three goals and provided two assists so far in four Premier League games and manager Antonio Conte wil
Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata (left) celebrating with Marcos Alonso after scoring the first goal against Leicester. The Blues’ new signing has scored three goals and provided two assists so far in four Premier League games and manager Antonio Conte will be counting on him for firepower against Qarabag. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Chelsea manager Antonio Conte indicated yesterday he will rotate his players for his side's Champions League opener against Azerbaijani newcomers Qarabag.

Today's encounter at Stamford Bridge is the second in a sequence of seven matches in 21 days for the Blues, following Saturday's 2-1 Premier League win over Leicester.

With a League Cup game against Nottingham Forest coming up on Sept 20, after a home game with Arsenal in the league on Sunday, Conte says he has no choice but to shake things up.

"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," the Italian manager said at Chelsea's Cobham training base.

"You are never relaxed in England because you have to play a tough league and also FA Cup and also Carabao (League) Cup.

"Now we are starting to play the Champions League. To play 60, 65 games, it's normal, but it's not easy. In my past, sometimes before a Champions League game, you rested. In England it's not easy to do this.

"When you make the decision (on selection) there is always the risk. The risk could be to play with the same players as against Leicester and then after the game, 'Why didn't you change the team that was tired?'

"You know very well if you win you've made the best decision, if you lose you've made the worst decision. I must be realistic, I must be calm, to make the best decision for these seven games."

Star forward Eden Hazard returned to action on Saturday after a broken ankle, but is expected to make only the substitutes' bench for the Group C opener.

New signing Danny Drinkwater has been ruled out after injuring his calf in training on Sunday.

Chelsea did not compete in Europe last season for the first time in 20 years after a lowly 10th-place league finish in 2015-16.

Conte, who won the Champions League as a player with Juventus in 1996, wants to engineer a repeat of Chelsea's 2012 triumph in the competition, but he warned it will take time.

"In the Champions League we are starting a path and it will be very important to start building something important," said the Italian, who never went beyond the quarter-finals as Juventus coach.

"To win a competition, you need to work very hard, to improve over years and to grow step by step and to arrive to be like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus are now. You don't create a big strong team easily."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Conte to shuffle his pack for Qarabag'. Print Edition | Subscribe