Downbeat Conte admits title fears

Antonio Conte could never be accused of overhyping Chelsea’s chances of retaining their Premier League title, but the manager’s reaction to Saturday’s defeat at Crystal Palace only underlined the scale of the task confronting the defending champions.

Downbeat Conte admits title fears

The Italian has offered a downbeat tone since before the start of the campaign when he struggled to disguise his frustration at the club’s limited involvement in the transfer market, a situation compounded by the impasse over Diego Costa.

The additional burden of European football meant this was always going to be a more testing season for a squad that lacks the depth of some rivals and the evidence provided by Saturday’s display at Selhurst Park confirmed such concerns are not misplaced.

Deprived of injured pair N’Golo Kante and Alvaro Morata, Chelsea were notably lacking drive from central midfield and, in particular, an effective cutting edge.

Conte’s apparent lack of faith in Michy Batshuayi’s ability to lead the attack in Morata’s absence was justified by the Belgium international’s display against a Palace defence that has been leaking goals during a dismal start to the campaign.

The manager expects Morata will be fit to face AS Roma in Wednesday’s Champions League group game and the Spain forward’s continuing absence would be a major blow.

It didn’t help that Victor Moses also hobbled off with a hamstring injury and the wing-back and Kante will both miss the visit of the Italians. The demands of European football are an additional burden this season and are already being felt.

“Last season is the past,” said Conte, the Chelsea head coach.

“Now it is another squad, different players, and for this reason if we compare last season we didn’t play Europa League or Champions League. This season we are facing four competitions and we are having a few problems doing this. When you have a few injuries, you are in trouble.

“This season will be difficult but also we have to understand this season we have to try 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 stay and play for Chelsea. We must have patience this season to understand it won’t be easy.”

This time last season the gap between Chelsea and the head of the table after eight games last season was three points, with Conte’s side already two games into a 13-game winning run that would prove to be the bedrock of their successful title bid.

This time around, they are nine points off top and face Watford next Monday on the back of two defeats. Turning things around will be harder this time and Gary Cahill concedes it could take a similar winning run to get them back into contention.

“City are blowing teams away, outside of our game against them,” said Cahill the Chelsea captain. “Seven goals again they put in today.

"They are in a rich vein of form, we know what that’s like and to have the confidence of winning and winning and winning. We need to go on a run. Without getting carried away, it’s early and if you can be in and around by January time, then it’s a decent position.”

He added: “You saw the real Chelsea last season and it is important we try and emulate that sort of form this season. It’s about consistency.”

Palace finally scored their first goal of the league campaign when Cesar Azpilicueta put through his own goal in the 11th minute and Wilfried Zaha restored the home side’s lead immediately before the interval after Tiemoue Bakayoko had headed an 18th-minute equaliser.

For Palace, this result was mood-changing. Selhurst Park has been a gloomy place after seven successive defeats but the defeat of Conte’s side clearly had a galvanising effect on manager, players and supporters with Roy Hodgson claiming the display confirmed his current side are at a more advanced point than the Fulham side he steered to final-day survival.

“It took us a long while to get anything like this sort of team performance at Fulham; we didn’t do it after a month,” Hodgson said.

“Hopefully now the players know that they can do it, because they’ve done it against the champions of England, so they’ve got to feel now, that with 30 games to go, we’re never going to go into a game not feeling that we can get something out of it.”

CRYSTAL PALACE (4-4-2):

Speroni 7; Ward 7, Dann 8, Sakho 9, Van Aanholt 7; McArthur 7 (Fosu-Mensah 86), Cabaye 7 (Riedewald 86), Milivojevic 8, Schlupp 7 (Pucheon 76, 6): Zaha 8, Townsend 8.

Subs not used:

Henry, Tomkins, Kaikai, Sako.

CHELSEA (3-4-3):

Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 5, Luiz 6, Cahill 6; Moses 6 (Zappacosta 40,6), Fabregas 8, Bakayoko 6, Alonso 7; Willian 5 (Musonda 65,6), Batshuayi 4 (Pedro 57,6), Hazard 5.

Subs not used:

Caballero, Rudiger, Christensen, Scott.

Referee:

Andre Marriner

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