Antonio Conte produced a dream start to his Premier League career as he led Chelsea to the title in his first season in English football. It was the second time in three years the trophy had landed at Stamford Bridge, but have the Blues got what it takes to defend their status as champions or will it be a season of frustration this time around?
We tipped Chelsea to land the title before a ball was kicked last season, and there is little doubt that a lack of European football was a significant aid to their cause. The West London club had won the title in Jose Mourinho’s second spell as boss in the 2014/15 season, but the wheels completely came off the following season and the controversial manager only lasted until December 2015. Despite being holders of the title Mourinho was given his marching orders with the team languishing in 14th position in the table. Much was made of rifts in the dressing room and Dutch manager Guus Hiddink was brought in to steady the ship, but he was only able to lead the club to a 10th placed finish – missing out on European football for the first time in 13 years.
Conte arrived after an impressive Euro 2016 with the Italian national team, and made an immediate impact. With a rejuvenated Eden Hazard and a solid defence, the Blues were top of the table by November and never relinquished that position. They clinched the title with a 1-0 win at West Brom with two games to spare and also reached the final of the FA Cup, although they lost out in that competition to Arsenal.
No club has successfully defended the Premier League trophy since Manchester United won consecutive title in 2008 & 2009. Since then Chelsea have won it three times, Manchester United twice, Manchester City twice, and most famously Leicester once.
While not as prolific in the buying stakes as both Manchester clubs so far during the transfer window, Conte has moved to fill the positions in his squad with an efficiency to match his playing style. German international Antonio Rudiger has been brought in from Roma to replace the outgoing John Terry, and can be expected to line up alongside Cahill and Luiz at the heart of the Blues’ three-man defence.
Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata has also signed, most likely to replace the outgoing Diego Costa, and the Spanish international has been handed the number 9 shirt. Another high profile acquisition is that of Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, a French international described by France manager Didier Deschamps as the ‘complete midfielder’. Along with N’Golo Kante he will make up one of the most formidable central midfield partnerships the Premier League has ever seen. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero has also joined from Manchester City to provide an experienced back-up to Belgium stopper Thibaut Cortois.
Chelsea are a best price of +380 with 188Bet to retain the title, behind favourites Manchester City.
Conte’s style of play proved highly successful last season – a back three ably supported by marauding wing backs in the shape of Moses and Alonso. These may be areas in which he looks to strengthen, although both players benefited from the system and played beyond their previous form for other clubs.
Life may prove more difficult this time around for two reasons: firstly that other clubs will now be familiar with Chelsea’s style and will be better equipped to set up against them, and secondly because the Blues will face the dual challenges of domestic and European football. All of their key rivals last season were playing in either the Champions League or Europa League, except for Liverpool – and it could be argued that the lack of European fayre assisted the Anfield club as well, as they finished in the top four.
An assault on the Champions League could prove to be detrimental to Chelsea’s Premier League campaign, and one would not suggest backing them to lift the trophy for a second season under Conte. Neither Morata or Batshuayi are proven in the Premier League, and if Diego Costa does leave they will have big boots to fill.
The Blues won the Champions League in 2012 and also reached the semi finals in 2014, but were knocked out at the round of 16 stage in the last two seasons that they competed in the elite competition. PSG were their nemesis on both occasions. Chelsea are +1400 with Bet365, William Hill and BetVictor to lift the Champions League if you think they can repeat the triumph of the 2011/12 season.
There will of course be huge opposition from the usual suspects – Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus, as well as the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Spurs and Liverpool from the English contingent.
Another worry is that Conte didn’t taste success in Europe with Juventus in his only previous forays into the Champions League. In the 2012/13 season Juve were eliminated by Bayern Munich at the quarter final stage, before going out at the group stage in the following season – disappointingly finishing behind Galatasaray.
One area where Conte has failed to excel is in domestic cup competitions, having never won a Coppa Italia in his time at Juventus, despite winning three consecutive titles between 2011/12 and 2013/14. He did reach a final in his first season at the Italian champions, and repeated that feat in his first with Chelsea last year. The Blues lost out in extra time to Arsenal, failing to complete a domestic double.
It is not unusual for Champions League sides to take a pragmatic view of the League Cup, particularly if they are not desperate for trophies as Chelsea are not. The FA Cup still has a romance and history to it though, and one fancies that Conte will give that competition his full attention in tandem with Champions League and Premier League campaigns.
Chelsea to win the FA Cup