Antonio Conte says the injury problems that threaten to derail Chelsea’s season have been caused by his side’s increased workload.
Conte’s team have lost their last two Premier League matches against Manchester City and Crystal Palace as the injury bug bites ahead of Roma’s visit to Stamford Bridge in the Champions League today. France midfielder N’Golo Kante is sidelined for several weeks with a hamstring problem, while England midfielder Danny Drinkwater is a long-term absentee due to a calf injury. Spain striker Alvaro Morata missed the shock 2-1 defeat at Palace with a hamstring strain, while Nigeria wing-back Victor Moses limped off during Saturday’s game after suffering a hamstring problem.
Chelsea’s lengthy injury list is a stark contrast to last season, when Conte was able to field the same starting line-up most weeks. The Blues were able to focus on the Premier League with little disruption last term after failing to qualify for Europe.
But with the additional demands of the Champions League this season, Conte’s squad is already being stretched to breaking point. Some reports have claimed the intense Conte is working his players too hard in training, but the Italian is convinced it is the fixture schedule that is playing havoc with his players’ fitness.
“The problem is we are playing always the same players,” Conte told reporters yesterday.
“And also we have players in our team who are not used to playing three games in a week. Kante, it’s the first time. For Moses, the first time.
“For Morata, it’s the first time to play regularly for his team. For Alonso it’s the same. When you have a lot of games, you need to rotate players. If this is not possible, I have to take risks. For example, against Manchester City: Morata was injured after 20 minutes. But if I hadn’t put Morata in the starting XI, you’d have told me I’m crazy. Sometimes the players need to rest.”
Having expressed his frustration at Chelsea’s failure to land his top transfer targets during the close-season, Conte fears the English champions will struggle to cope with the demands of defending the title and competing in Europe.
Reportedly furious with Chelsea’s limp display at Palace on Saturday, Conte is said to have held a lengthy inquest with his team this week, accusing them of taking it easy and imploring them to raise their work-rate.
Against that troubled backdrop, Chelsea could do with a morale-boosting victory against Roma. Chelsea top Champions League Group C after thrashing Qarabag and securing an impressive win at Atletico Madrid.
Beating the Italians would keep Chelsea on course to progress to the knockout stages as group winners. Conte will take heart from the return to fitness of former Real Madrid striker Morata, who had scored seven times in eight appearances before being injured last month. Michy Batshuayi gave another lacklustre display against Palace and is likely to make way for Morata. “I could take a risk on Saturday to force Morata to play against Crystal Palace, but I’m not so stupid,” Conte said. “Tomorrow I’m not taking a risk if I decide for Morata to play.”
Conte is well acquainted with the threat posed by Roma and admitted he tried to sign their Belgium midfielder Radja Nainggolan in the past. “Yes, we tried to buy him. But it’s not right to speak about him,” he added. “For me, one of the best midfielders. But he’s an opponent.”
Champions League fixtures
(all 1845 GMT unless stated):
At Lisbon: Benfica (POR) v Manchester United (ENG); At Moscow: CSKA Moscow (RUS) v Basel (SUI)
At Brussels: Anderlecht (BEL) v Paris Saint-Germain (FRA); At Munich, Germany: Bayern Munich (GER) v Celtic (SCO)
At Baku: Qarabag (AZE) v Atletico Madrid (ESP) (1600); At London: Chelsea (ENG) v Roma (ITA)
At Barcelona, Spain: Barcelona (ESP) v Olympiakos (GRE); At Turin, Italy: Juventus (ITA) v Sporting Lisbon (POR)
Hazard aims to seize Champions League spotlight
London: Frustrated by his past failures, Chelsea star Eden Hazard has been urged to finally stamp his mark on the Champions League.
While Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar have cemented their legendary status with headline-stealing performances in Europe’s elite club competition, Hazard remains one of the tournament’s biggest enigmas.
Hazard’s quality is without question and the Belgian midfielder has been shortlisted for the 2017 Ballon d’Or award after playing a key role in Chelsea’s Premier League title triumph last season. But despite tormenting defenders in domestic competitions, since Hazard made his Champions League debut with Lille in 2011, the game’s grandest stage has seen frustratingly few glimpses of that exquisite talent.
With that in mind, Chelsea’s clash with Roma today offers Hazard a chance to change the narrative. Aware that Hazard is now in his prime years, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has issued a public challenge to a player sometimes known for letting his diffident personality have a negative effect on his performances.
“I think last season Eden played a really important season. He played very well and was really important for us to win the league,” Conte said. “For us he showed in every game great talent and to be a really good player. This competition is very important for him and for the team. This competition brings you on another level and I think he has all the possibility to do this. He is a top player. I think it is the right moment.”
Hazard’s maiden Champions League voyage ended with the youngster failing to score a single goal as Lille bowed out at the group stage. Yet, convinced of Hazard’s potential, Chelsea signed him just weeks after they won the Champions League in 2012. However, Hazard went goalless in Europe that season as Chelsea were embarrassingly eliminated at the group stage. Hazard netted his first Champions League goal against Schalke in 2013 and had one of his more influential campaigns, with Chelsea reaching the semi-finals.
That proved a false dawn as disappointing last-16 exits to Paris Saint-Germain in 2015 and 2016 featured more underwhelming efforts from the Belgian.
Conte made his plea for more urgency from Hazard as Chelsea look to recover after their Premier League title defence was dented by successive defeats to Manchester City and Crystal Palace.
Significantly, Hazard has been unable to replicate last season’s mesmerising form as he struggles to rediscover his sharpness following an ankle injury.
The 26-year-old needed surgery in the close-season and has been limited to only four starts for Chelsea in the current campaign. Hazard has yet to score in eight appearances for Chelsea this term.
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