Lack of rotation puts title rivals in a spin as Antonio Conte’s Chelsea close in on Premier League trophy
League leaders face Bournemouth this weekend after beating Manchester City 2-1 in their midweek home match
In these days of squad rotation, one of the key factors in Chelsea’s title surge in the English Premier League has an old-fashioned twist: Antonio Conte’s ability to put his best players on the pitch week in, week out.
The importance of that element to Chelsea’s success was emphasised last weekend when Victor Moses, who has played a crucial if largely unheralded role in his rebirth as right wingback, was absent from the Premier League starting team for the first time since the end of September.
With the breakup of Conte’s trusted back six - Thibaut Courtois, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso and Moses - Chelsea lost 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace.
That was not the only factor, and Chelsea quickly went and beat Manchester City 2-1 in their midweek home match without Moses, but Conte has been more fortunate than other managers in being able to field a settled side for most of the season.
To give two examples, Tottenham Hotspur are currently having to cope without top striker Harry Kane for a second injury spell this season, while Liverpool’s talisman Sadio Mane was a key absentee during their January slump.
Perhaps even more significantly, and in stark contrast to Chelsea’s settled back six, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino has been able to field his top-class central defensive partnership of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in just 17 of their 30 league games.
Pochettino’s defence has also been disrupted by the recent injury to Danny Rose, but the Vertonghen-Alderweireld factor is informative.
Taking Tottenham’s high points average when that pairing has been available, they would have 74 points which is two more than Chelsea’s current total, if the two Belgian defenders had played every match.
That is not to decry Chelsea’s resurgence under Conte, which has been extraordinary and exhilarating, but merely to observe that some of the influential factors in the title race have not necessarily been about form or decision making.
Chelsea, as has been noted before, were always likely to have a big advantage by not being involved in European football this season, and that has helped Conte in keeping his best players fit and fresh.
Conte has been able to put his key attacking partnership of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard on the pitch in 26 of Chelsea’s 30 league matches, while by contrast, Tottenham’s Kane and Dele Alli have started together only 19 times out of 30.
Tottenham have done remarkably well to move into clear second place in the table, given that they were in the Champions League and then the Europa League.
Third-placed Liverpool, like Chelsea, were able to concentrate solely on domestic competitions, which means Tottenham are seven points ahead of the next-best team in Manchester City in fourth that were involved in Europe.
It is almost certainly too late for Tottenham now, but there is another tantalising hope for them over the next week when they have two home games while Chelsea face trips to Bournemouth and Manchester United.
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If Pochettino’s chasers fail to make up some more ground soon, all hope will be gone.
Tottenham have to keep winning and probably they need close to maximum points if they are to have any chance of catching Chelsea, and they need one or two further shocks to befall Chelsea.
It is not inconceivable that one could happen at Bournemouth on Sunday morning (Hong Kong time) and, in that case, a Chelsea defeat at United next weekend could make the run-in much more interesting.
And yet even then the European factor might help Chelsea again, as their visit to Old Trafford comes in between United’s two-legged Europa League quarter-final against Belgium’s Anderlecht.
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That competition is undoubtedly Jose Mourinho’s key target now, which is bound to influence his selection against Chelsea in the Premier League.
These factors emphasise the thin margins involved in the Premier League and should encourage a cautionary approach to the binary conclusion that a club, or a manager or player, is a success or a failure.
The differences between them are often small and dictated by a myriad of factors.
Last season Chelsea failed, but they have turned their fortunes around this season owing to many factors, while Moses is a great example of a player who had been drifting but has grasped a fresh opportunity under a new regime.
In that, and many other ways, Conte has proved himself an astute manager and Chelsea would be worthy champions.
But if and when they collect the trophy, it will not be as simple as Chelsea good, the rest bad.
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