Antonio Conte has hailed the ‘fantasy’ Cesc Fabregas has brought to Chelsea’s pursuit of the Premier League title.
The Spain international, 29, has been a substitute surprisingly often this season, despite his undoubted influence when selected.
Fabregas has started Chelsea’s last two fixtures, though he has often appeared off the bench to change some of Chelsea’s more difficult games after his manager’s preference for the combined physicality of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.
Of the midfielder who has become to Chelsea what impact substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was to Alex Ferguson’s dominant Manchester United, Conte said: “Cesc gives you great quality, great fantasy and assists.
“It’s important to manage the situation and understand when it’s right, for example, to play with Cesc or with Matic. We are talking about two great players, with different characteristics. Nema is more physical, more technical, less fantasy than Cesc; Cesc has more fantasy but is less physical than Nema.
“He has always had a great impact, whether he starts a game or comes on. He always has a great impact. He’s technically very good, and can put the ball where he wants. He’s a great player. Often he’s decisive with the pass, with the assist, and also to score a goal.
For Conte to insist a player who has won the World Cup and two European Championships is improving would usually seem an exaggeration, yet last season was Fabregas’ worst in English football, when Chelsea surrendered the title and Jose Mourinho was sacked.
Insufficient first-team football led to him leaving his boyhood club Barcelona for Chelsea in 2014, but Conte’s team are closing in on the title and therefore a return to the Champions League, which would likely lead to him playing more.
“Cesc, this season, is showing to be a great professional but, above all, a great player,” said the Italian. “I’m very pleased to see that in him; his commitment and work-rate. “Cesc, in the past, has always played every single game. It’s not easy to change. But, for sure, Cesc showed me that he is not only a great player but a great person.”
Conte has two injury doubts for today’s visit to the Britannia Stadium despite Victor Moses’ return to training, but the manager would not reveal his two concerns.
“Victor Moses trained well (on Friday),” he said. “I think he’s available but it’s important to check a couple of situations and then make the best decisions (for selection on Saturday). I’d prefer to keep those to me.”
Stoke gave Chelsea a good game at Stamford Bridge in December, twice hitting back to draw level before going down 4-2, and manager Mark Hughes feels his side can take encouragement from that - and the point they earned away at Manchester City nine days ago.
“We gave a decent account of ourselves down there and we obviously had a good performance last time out and so we’ll refer back to that as we approach the weekend,” said Hughes.
“I don’t think many people expected us to get any sort of positive result at Manchester City but we were very solid and had a threat up front, so all in all we are in decent shape and good heart.
“Chelsea are playing exceptionally well at the moment, so it will be a tough ask, but I think we can draw encouragement from how we’ve performed in our last two games.”
Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Wilfried Bony return to the Stoke squad.
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