Conte slams unfair scheduling after long-haul success
Qarabag 0-4 Chelsea
Antonio Conte said the preparations for Chelsea's trip to Liverpool would continue on a sleepless flight home from Baku after his side breezed into the Champions League knockout stages with a win over 10-man Qarabag.
Conte has spent much of the past week complaining about Chelsea's fixture scheduling, saying more "respect" must be shown to his side after they were given a Saturday meeting with Liverpool barely two days after their 2,500-mile trip back from the eastern corner of Azerbaijan.
The Chelsea manager was further enraged by the fact that Liverpool have had an extra day to prepare following their 3-3 draw with Sevilla on Tuesday night.
"We have to work during the flight to prepare the game against Liverpool," Conte said. "To have only one day to rest and prepare this big game is not simple, not easy. I think also it's not right."
Conte has been particularly upset that it is the second time this season they have been forced to play on a Saturday after a European game on a Wednesday. On the first occasion, they lost 1-0 at home to Manchester City.
Conte was at least pleased that his side were able to dismiss the challenge of Qarabag so comfortably in Baku, even if they were given a helping hand by two generous refereeing decisions.
Two penalties were converted, by first Eden Hazard and then Cesc Fabregas, while two excellent goals from Willian on his 200th Chelsea appearance caused further misery for Qarabag, who lost their captain Rashad Sadygov to a red card after just 20 minutes.
The victory means that there is less pressure on Chelsea's final game in the Champions League group stage, against Atletico Madrid, which will allow Conte to rotate his squad during a hectic run of fixtures.
"We must be pleased that we reached our first target: to go through into the next round," Conte said. "To avoid the Atletico game becoming decisive is very important. It will be a good chance also to have another rotation with my players.
"Tonight was very positive for us in a game that I knew would not be easy."
Atletico and Roma have faced difficult evenings at the Baku Olympic Stadium this season, but there were no such concerns for Chelsea, despite a nervy start in which Qarabag midfielder Michel struck the bar.
Shortly afterwards, Willian collapsed to the ground in the penalty box under the close attention of Sadygov. Referee Manuel de Sousa not only saw enough to award the penalty, but also to show Sadygov the red card.
With him went Qarabag's game-plan, despite their bizarre attempt to call a sort of timeout and hold a team meeting on the side of the pitch while Hazard waited to take the penalty.
The situation was made more comical by the enthusiastic efforts of Qarabag goalkeeper Ibrahim Sehic to join the huddle before he was frantically waved back.
It was no distraction to Hazard, at least, who calmly rolled in his sixth goal in seven games. Willian, for his part, said there was a "little bit" of contact.
"For me it was a penalty," he said to reporters afterwards. "I don't think for you guys it is, but for me it was a penalty."
Qarabag manager Gurban Gurbanov was furious.
"The red card did not allow us to show our best game," he said. "Our fans didn't deserve it. The players were shocked by the decision. Maybe if we were not a small country and a small team, the decision might have been different."
From there, Chelsea never needed to leave second gear. But if there was anger over the first goal, even the Qarabag fans would have been able to appreciate the quality of Chelsea's second.
Fabregas picked out Pedro, who flicked the ball artfully into the path of Willian. From there it went to Hazard and, before Qarabag knew what was happening, back to Willian, who could hardly miss.
It could have been three long before the second contentious penalty decision was awarded, with Pedro and Hazard missing openings after the break.
When it did arrive, it was thanks to Willian again, who was awarded a penalty for a seemingly innocuous shirt pull by Gara Garayev. Fabregas did the rest from the spot, even though he was made to retake the penalty.
At this point Chelsea were in cruise control. They looked to be happy with their lot until the last five minutes, when Willian fired home his second with a thunderous strike from outside the box.