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Home Sport Football European

Conte to ring the changes and energise weary Chelsea

 

By Matt McGeehan

Head coach Antonio Conte is poised to rotate his players when Chelsea make their Champions League return tonight. The Premier League champions play their second of seven games in September when their Group C campaign opens against Azerbaijan's Qarabag.

Sunday's league clash with Arsenal follows before a midweek Carabao Cup tie with Nottingham Forest for the Blues, who won the Premier League in Conte's first season as boss.

The calibre of domestic opposition means it is difficult to rest players and prioritise the Champions League, Conte says.

The Italian said: "You are never relaxed in England because you have to play a tough league and also FA Cup and also Carabao Cup.

"Now we are starting to play the Champions League. To play 60, 65 games is normal, but it's not easy.

"In the past before a Champions League game I sometimes rested players. In England it's not easy to do this.

"When you make the decision (on selection) there is always the risk. The risk could be to play with the same players as against Leicester and then after the game you think, 'Why didn't you change the team that was tired?'

"You know very well if you win you've made the best decision, if you lose you've made the worst decision. I must be realistic, I must be calm to make the best decisions for these seven games.

"It's normal to rotate players when you have to play seven games in 21 days. I'm very calm about this because I trust my players."

Chelsea were not in continental competition last term after the previous year's implosion, when Jose Mourinho was sacked for a second time and they finished 10th in the top flight.

It was the first time in 20 years that Chelsea were not involved in Europe and they had been in every Champions League group stage since 2003-04.

Conte has Champions League pedigree as a player, reaching four finals, winning once. He took Juventus to the quarter-finals once as boss and they have thrived in the competition since he left to take charge of Italy.

He wants to make his mark with Chelsea, the 2012 European champions, but knows it will take time.

"In the Champions League we are starting a path and it will be very important to start building something important," he added.

"To win a competition, you need to work very hard, to improve over years and to grow step by step and to arrive to be like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus.

"You don't create a big, strong team easily."

Midfielder Danny Drinkwater (calf) is unavailable with the full extent of his injury sustained in training on Sunday still to be determined.

Playmaker Eden Hazard is likely to continue as a substitute after only recently returning from a broken ankle.

Gary Cahill, the club captain, is desperate to play having served a three-match ban following his sending off in the season-opener against Burnley.

"I feel like my season's just starting," the England defender said. "I'm itching to play."

  • Chelsea v Qarabag FC, Champions League: Stamford Bridge, Tonight, 7.45pm

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