Thursday 22 August 2019

Conte’s constant moaning over congested fixture list can’t hide fact he has steadied ship at Chelsea

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte. Photo: AP
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte. Photo: AP

Luke Brown

There was no mid-flight film and whiskey miniature for Antonio Conte on Wednesday night. Instead, as his players caught some sleep around him, the Chelsea manager spent the five-and-a-half-hour overnight flight from Baku to London working on a plan to win on Merseyside.

His coaching staff received advanced notice that they too were in for a sleepless night after the comfortable 4-0 victory over the minnows of Qarabag.

"We have to work during the flight to prepare for the game against Liverpool," Conte instructed at his post-match press conference, before once again taking aim at the Premier League over Chelsea's congested fixture list.

"To have only one day to rest and prepare for such a big game is not easy," he said.

"I think also it's not right. The English league is very tough. There are six top teams who try to fight for the title. To create, for the second time in only one-and-a-half months, problems for one team is not right. Someone has to help us to underline this strange situation."

Frustration with the club's upcoming run of fixtures has become a well-worn theme for Conte over the past few days, with the Italian also using his conference after the West Brom game - another 4-0 win - to criticise the Premier League. "We are doing our job and it's important to do it in the best way," he remarked. "We want also a bit of respect for our job."

He has a right to grumble. Chelsea eventually touched back down in London shortly after 4am yesterday morning - which gives them less than two days to prepare for their match against Liverpool.

Without question, it's a huge fixture - Chelsea risk falling a surely insurmountable 12-points behind league leaders Manchester City if they lose, while Spurs could also leapfrog them into third.

But Conte's decidedly Jose Mourinho-esque grumbling has the unfortunate effect of obfuscating just how well Chelsea have managed their tricky November fixtures, especially considering they ended the month of October with a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Roma - a result which put Conte under massive pressure as it looked set to consign his troops to second-place in Champions League Group C.

Since that hammering - which heaped more pressure onto Conte's shoulders after a slow start to the Premier League and the surprise exit of technical director Michael Emenalo - Chelsea have done a fine job of steadying the ship.

After a very scratchy 4-2 win against Watford, the club have been flawless in the Premier League, beating Bournemouth and United by a single goal and hammering an admittedly ragged-looking West Brom 4-0 at The Hawthorns.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's win over Qarabag was an especially fine result considering Roma slipped up to Atletico Madrid on the same night.

With one match remaining, at home to Atletico, Conte's charges now lead Roma by two points and have a good opportunity to top the group, which would see them play an unseeded team in the last 16.

Chelsea also have a good chance of ending Liverpool's three-match winning run in the Premier League, despite their less-than-ideal preparation for the Anfield encounter.

Liverpool have been poor against their top-six rivals - beating Arsenal but drawing 0-0 with United and losing 5-0 to City and 4-1 to Spurs - and head into the match after collapsing against Sevilla in Spain, somehow turning a 3-0 half-time lead into a 3-3 draw.

And then there's the fact that compared to their rivals, Chelsea have a comparatively kind Christmas schedule. Their New Year's Day fixture against Arsenal has been pushed back to January 3, which means a leisurely 273 hours separate the start of their first festive fixture to the last. Of the 20 Premier League clubs, only Arsenal have it better.

Things get a little bit more complicated in January, when Conte will have to balance the demands of the Champions League Round of 16 stage with a potential two-legged EFL semi-final, as well as the club's Premier League commitments. But Chelsea's squad is deep enough to cope.

Before all that, however, is the trip to Liverpool. And, for all Conte's moaning, Chelsea have an excellent chance of extending their unbeaten run and keeping up the pressure on the two Manchester clubs.

Don't let the repeated press conference sighs deceive you: after an uncertain start Conte has steadied Chelsea and there is nothing to stop them maintaining this run through the winter.

Telegraph.co.uk

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