Saturday 21 September 2019

Antonio Conte acknowledges he has got the right balance with Chelsea

Antonio Conte's Chelsea will be top of the Premier League at Christmas
Antonio Conte's Chelsea will be top of the Premier League at Christmas

Antonio Conte believes his Chelsea side have defied doubters by occupying a familiar position at the top of the Premier League.

Chelsea were champions when they capitulated under Jose Mourinho, who was sacked 12 months ago before the Blues recovered to finish in 10th place.

Conte, Mourinho's permanent successor, has steered Chelsea to a club record 11 successive Premier League wins and a six-point lead ahead of Monday's Boxing Day clash with Bournemouth.

"If I go with my mind to the start of the season, not one person thought or forecast that Chelsea would stay top of the table, for many reasons," Conte said.

"Because the squad was the same as last season's. Because our (transfer) market wasn't a great market.

"But I think, in these situations, we found the right balance. Me and my players and the club."

On his rejuvenated Blues now being title favourites, Conte added: "I prefer to be favourites on the pitch, not with words. With words you can change who are favourites very quickly."

The squad is largely the same as the one which saw Chelsea claim a first Premier League title in five years under Mourinho in May 2015, although David Luiz, Victor Moses, N'Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso are new to that line-up.

Chelsea led on Christmas Day then and on each of the four occasions the Blues have won the Premier League title they were top on December 25.

Six times in the last seven seasons the Christmas leaders went on to win the title - 2013 was the exception when Liverpool slipped from the summit.

And Conte believes his players will be unfazed by topping the table at Christmas, while insisting it is the final standings which matter.

"These players, in the past, have had the habit of staying top of the table," the former Juventus and Italy boss added.

"It's not the first time for me or for my players. But I prefer not to look at the table at this moment, either me or the players.

"Now it's more important to take the three points and increase your tally. Then we can look at the end of the season and see where we are. Then it's important."

Conte disagrees with the theory that there is less pressure to chase.

"I'd prefer the pressure to stay top of the table," Conte said.

"We earned this position. Now it's important to keep this position. It won't be easy for sure.

"For sure, to arrive at Christmas and to open the newspaper and see you are top of the table, that's fantastic.

"The players deserve this. But, in my experience it's important to keep this position.

"You can keep this position only through hard work, only to face every game with great concentration, with great focus, with great will to fight and to win the game."

Bournemouth beat Chelsea in the final weeks of Mourinho's reign and Conte expects a challenge, especially with striker Diego Costa and midfielder Kante suspended after each accumulating five yellow cards.

Conte is taking time to find a solution to replace Costa, who has scored 13 Premier League goals this season.

And the Italian is considering tinkering with the 3-4-3 formation which has been used in the winning run.

Michy Batshuayi could be a straight replacement or Conte could deploy two central forwards.

"For this reason, this is a good test for us, because we play this game without two players very important for our team," Conte added.

"I have four days to evaluate the situation and to try to find the best solution for the team."

PA Media

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