Belfast Telegraph

Chelsea's title defence will be my toughest test yet: Conte

By Matt McGeehan

Antonio Conte expects this season to be his most difficult in management.

The Chelsea boss made his prediction after the club publicly rebuffed "nonsense" claims over exiled striker Diego Costa.

Costa's future has been a recurring theme at Chelsea since January, when he was linked with a move to the Chinese Super League and was left out of the squad at Leicester as rumours of tensions with Conte surfaced.

A lawyer stating he represented Costa threatened the Premier League champions with legal action after the striker, who is yet to return to Chelsea, was told he was free to leave.

A Chelsea spokesman said yesterday: "The premise the lawyer has put forward is just wrong.

"The lawyer's argument that Antonio as a coach has forced the player out by text message in June is just nonsense."

Conte has endured a challenging summer and has admitted Chelsea's squad is too small ahead of a return to the Champions League.

And, after transforming the Blues from a 10th-placed team to champions in his first year in charge, Conte anticipates potential for trouble this term.

Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Claudio Ranieri at Leicester both found themselves out of work in the season after their title wins.

"For me, it will be the most difficult season of my career," said Conte, ahead of tomorrow's Community Shield match against Arsenal at Wembley. "For many reasons. It's very difficult. I haven't a lot of time to explain a lot of these reasons. But I'm sure about this.

"I have this perception and I hope I've made a mistake."

One of those reasons is the Costa situation.

The 28-year-old, his agent Jorge Mendes and Chelsea decided in January that the striker would be leaving the Blues in the summer.

There has long been speculation of a return to Atletico Madrid during Costa's three years at Chelsea. However, Atletico are subject to a transfer embargo until January 2018 and AC Milan have also been linked with Costa.

Another challenge has been transfers. Chelsea have signed striker Alvaro Morata, midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, defender Antonio Rudiger and goalkeeper Willy Caballero, but all are replacements rather than additions.

Chelsea signed David Luiz and Marcos Alonso late in last summer's transfer window, with both playing a key role in the Premier League title triumph.

Conte, whose side begin their Premier League title defence against Burnley next Saturday, said: "I haven't great patience. (But) we have to wait for the best moment, the best solution."

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