Second-string Blues stake their claim

Olivier Giroud, whose wife recently gave birth to their third child, celebrating with Danny Drinkwater after scoring Chelsea's fourth goal against Hull at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup fifth round on Friday.
Olivier Giroud, whose wife recently gave birth to their third child, celebrating with Danny Drinkwater after scoring Chelsea's fourth goal against Hull at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup fifth round on Friday.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Chelsea manager Antonio Conte welcomed his selection headache ahead of a vital few weeks for the English champions, after a much-changed side thrashed Hull 4-0 on Friday to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals.

Willian was the star of the show with two fabulous strikes from outside the box, while Pedro Rodriguez and Olivier Giroud with his first for the club also struck as all four goals came in the first half.

Conte had left Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard out of his squad before Barcelona's visit to Stamford Bridge for the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday.

In between the two legs against the Catalan giants, Chelsea travel to Manchester United and Manchester City on Premier League duty as they battle for a place in the top four.

However, Conte believes victory, allied to a 3-0 win over West Brom on Monday, has restored the confidence in his squad that was reeling after back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford less than two weeks ago.

"We are talking about a massive game. But now, we must be confident," added the Italian. "I consider Barcelona one of the best teams in the world. In one side, you must be a bit sad to play against them, but, on the other hand, you must be excited."

Willian did more than most to try and force his way into Conte's side for Tuesday. The Brazilian scored from long range off both feet and saw another effort come back off the post two minutes from time.

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    Minutes, over three appearances, it took Oliver Giroud to score his first Chelsea goal.

"The hat-trick was almost there, I tried, but the most important thing was the win," said Willian. "After a difficult moment we are back to winning games. When you are winning games the confidence goes high."

A perfect night for Chelsea was rounded off by Giroud opening his account following a deadline-day move from Arsenal last month.

"I was waiting for it. I had a couple of chances in previous games. It's relieved me a little bit," he said. "We can see the team had a good team cohesion."

Conte was forced to field a side without a natural striker in their defeats against Bournemouth and Watford. But the manager now has competition for places up front, as Alvaro Morata continued his comeback from a back injury for the final 20 minutes against the Championship strugglers. And in a further injury boost, Conte confirmed that left wing-back Marcos Alonso will be fit to face Barca.

Leicester joined Chelsea in the last eight as Riyad Mahrez provided the spark for the Foxes on his return to the starting line-up, with a teasing cross for Jamie Vardy to head home the only goal in a 1-0 win over Sheffield United.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'Second-string Blues stake their claim'. Print Edition | Subscribe