Belfast Telegraph

Antonio Conte looking forward to 2018 after Chelsea's drubbing of Stoke

Antonio Conte believes Chelsea's next year can be even better than their last after they finished 2017 by hammering Stoke 5-0.

Chelsea won the title in May and reached the FA Cup final but their hopes of defending their Premier League crown look all-but over given Manchester City's blistering form this term.

The gap now stands at 13 points, with City still to play Crystal Palace on Sunday, after Chelsea dispatched Stoke thanks to goals from Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater, Pedro, Willian and Davide Zappacosta. Willian scored from a penalty.

Even if City's lead proves unassailable, however, Chelsea remain in contention in the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Champions League. As a result, Conte is optimistic for the year ahead.

"This was a fantastic year," Conte said. "To win the title in England is not simple. To be able to do this at your first chance, I will remember this year in my mind forever.

"But we are still involved in the Carabao Cup where we play against Arsenal. Last year we were eliminated in the second round against West ham.

"At the same time we reached the final of the FA Cup and it won't be easy to repeat this. In February we restart the Champions League against Barcelona. I think we have a lot of great games to face."

Stoke were out of sight before half-time at Stamford Bridge after Drinkwater had scored a sensational volley between Rudiger's early header and a smart finish from Pedro.

Willian, who had assisted Rudiger and Pedro, then turned scorer by winning a penalty and converting it, before substitute Zappacosta rifled home a fifth late on.

Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko were all rested, presumably with next week's trip to Arsenal in mind.

"We started the game very well, with great desire to score early," said Conte.

"In this type of game if you are able to score early the game can become easy because your opponent has to change their plan and then gives more space to your strikers."

Another defeat also cranks up the pressure on Stoke manager Mark Hughes, who has now overseen only two wins in 11 matches.

The disappointing run places greater importance on Monday's home game against Newcastle and Hughes said some of the six changes he made against Chelsea were with that upcoming fixture in mind.

"I made decisions I feel will help us with the game we have on Monday," Hughes said.

"We rested players carrying knocks who will be fresh and ready to go. The decisions weren't easy but they were decisions I was prepared to make.

"It's about getting the win against Newcastle now that we hope we will get and then this Christmas period will have been a good return. It would be two wins, a draw and a defeat to Chelsea."

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