Conte admits to 'difficult season' as Eagles expose Chelsea flaws
Antonio Conte reacted to Saturday's 2-1 defeat by Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park by conceding that this would be a "difficult season", while defender Gary Cahill admitted Chelsea may well have to match last season's record-breaking winning run if they are to close the gap on Manchester City at the top of the table.
Already the theme of Chelsea's title defence is one of managing expectations.
At this stage last year, Conte's side, reshaped after a painful defeat at Arsenal, had just beaten defending champions Leicester City 3-0 - the second of 13 successive victories that laid the foundation of their success - to lie fifth, three points behind leaders Manchester City.
Twelve months on, both sides occupy the same positions, but the direction of travel has changed and defeat by a Crystal Palace side without a point or league goal before Saturday, coming on the back of a home loss to Pep Guardiola's early pacesetters, means there is now a much more daunting nine-point deficit between the teams.
Conte's side now appear more fragile and particularly vulnerable following the loss of key players like Alvaro Morata and N'Golo Kante - both absent with hamstring injuries.
Victor Moses has joined the list of casualties, also with a hamstring problem, and will miss Wednesday's Champions League meeting with AS Roma - as will Kante.
Morata should return, and the performance at Selhurst Park only served to underline the importance of the Spain forward to Chelsea - as well as confirming the limited attacking options in a squad containing just two recognised strikers.
"Last season is the past," said Conte. "Now, it is another squad. Last season, we didn't play Europa League or Champions League. This season we are facing four competitions and are having a few problems.
"This season will be difficult, but we have to build something important for the future, to give the opportunity to the new players to have more experience in this league, to give the opportunity to young players to show they deserve to play for Chelsea. We must have patience."
Trailing to Cesar Azpilicueta's 11th minute own-goal, Chelsea recovered to level through Tiemoue Bakayoko's header seven minutes later, but were undone by Wilfried Zaha on half-time and were unable to translate second-half possession into meaningful reward.
"Yes, potentially," said Cahill, the Chelsea captain, when asked if Conte's side must match last season's winning run to recover lost ground.
"City are blowing teams away, outside of our game against them. We know what that's like. So yes, we need to go on a run. If you can be in and around by January time, it's a decent position (to be in)."
Roy Hodgson and his Palace players have done their own soul-searching in recent weeks, and the relief at finally ending a dismal losing run was clear, with the manager insisting this performance confirmed Palace are ahead of the Fulham side he steered to final-day safety.
"It took us a long while to get anything like this sort of team performance at Fulham," he said.
"We didn't do it after a month. Hopefully now the players know they can do it because they've done it against the champions.
"They've got to feel that with 30 games to go, we're never going to go into a game not feeling we can get something." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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