LONDON • Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has tinkered with his front line this season, deploying Eden Hazard as a false nine. But if the Blues are to pull off a shock ahead of Wednesday's Champions League showdown with Barcelona, Willian will have to be one of the first names on the team sheet.
The Italian praised his all-round contribution after the forward, who has started only 16 out of 29 Premier League games this term, helped halt a run of back-to-back league defeats in Saturday's 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace.
His deflected shot opened the scoring and it was the Brazilian's clever dummy that created the second, an own goal by Martin Kelly.
With 13 goals in all competitions - a personal best - and having had a hand in 17 goals in his last 18 starts, Willian, who has scored five goals in five games, is on the best run of his Blues career and his form is timely ahead of the last-16, return leg with the tie at 1-1.
And Conte was pleased not just with his contribution on the pitch but his hard work off the ball.
"You can see when a player is in great form, I'm the first to pick him in the starting XI," he said.
"He's playing in a fantastic way, but I want to underline, not only with the ball - also without the ball. He's working very hard and he's helping the team.
"I think that he has shown great maturity at this point of his career. In my heart, I hope to see him at this level, continuing these performances. It's very important to have a balance in the team because when you don't have that balance, anything can happen."
The only gripe Conte had was his side were too open after going in search of the third goal, which eventually led to the injury-time goal for Palace through Patrick van Aanholt.
"We made a lot of chances and it was a pity that they scored the goal and we had three minutes that were a bit nervous," Conte added.
"But the game against Barcelona will be very different. We will have to show great resilience. We will be playing against one of the best teams in the world. We have to find the right plan to face this game."
Having spent much of his time at Chelsea operating in Hazard's shadow, Willian's emergence as a leading light has put Barca on alert.
And Barca manager Ernesto Valverde admitted as much after their 2-0 LaLiga win over 10-man bottom-side Malaga on Saturday, with Lionel Messi omitted after welcoming his third child.
"In the second half, we began to subconsciously think about the match on Wednesday," he said in his post-match interview.
"We will have to suffer to progress past Chelsea."
The Spaniard also added that Andres Iniesta was still a doubt, while Chelsea will be missing David Luiz for the Nou Camp clash.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS