Football

Conte ready to defend title with 'thin' squad

Cheslea boss says club doing their best in the transfer market

CHELSEA BURNLEY

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte insisted yesterday that he was "not looking for sympathy" over the size of his squad.

The Italian led the Blues from 10th the previous campaign to the Premier League trophy last season.

But, with a return to the Champions League resulting in additional fixtures, the Blues' squad size appears thin.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had an answer, pointing to Chelsea sending numerous players out on loan, while former England captain turned pundit Alan Shearer said there was "something brewing which isn't nice" at Stamford Bridge.

Conte said: "I'm not looking for sympathy of any coaches for this situation.

"This is my message.

"The situation is clear. If the club decide to send on loan players for their development, it's because these players are not ready to play for Chelsea."

Conte kept his counsel on Chelsea's transfer business, with the summer window open until Aug 31.

Conte said: "It's simple. I think I'm the coach of this team.

"My aim is to try to improve my players, to try to improve my team.

"I repeat: My only task is to focus on the pitch, what happens on the pitch, during the training session to work with my players. This must be my focus during this period.

"The club knows very well what is my opinion. And then I repeat: The club is trying to do their best in the transfer market."

The Premier League champions' campaign opens against Burnley at Stamford Bridge tonight.

Conte added: "We are facing different problems. But we must be ready, we must be ready to try to do our best tomorrow."

One of the issues is that striker Diego Costa, last season's top scorer, remains in exile.

Conte was unable to offer an update on his situation.

"No news," Conte added.

Conte was asked when Costa might return to Chelsea.

A Chelsea spokesman intervened, saying: "Nothing to report on that."

Striker Alvaro Morata was signed from Real Madrid for a reported fee rising to £70 million (S$124m) and could make his Premier League debut against the Clarets.

An ankle knock sustained by Pedro Rodriguez in the Community Shield penalty shoot-out loss to Arsenal could mean Morata will start alongside Michy Batshuayi, who scored the decisive goal in Chelsea's title success at West Brom in May.

Morata told Marca yesterday "they're already killing me" over scrutiny of his two pre-season games and his 15-minute cameo at Wembley, where he missed a penalty in the shoot-out.

NEEDS TIME

Conte said the Spain striker needs time to bed in while simultaneously outlining the importance of the leading forward in his team.

"He's starting to understand what I want from him during the game," Conte said.

"But he needs time to understand, to adapt to our style of football, above all for a striker.

"This role is more difficult to adapt to than the other roles."

Wingback Victor Moses is suspended so Conte must make at least two changes to the side which started against Arsenal, with playmaker Eden Hazard (broken ankle) and midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko (knee) both still out.

Antonio Ruediger could come in for Moses, with Cesar Azpilicueta pushing forward to right wingback.

As for the title defence, Conte declined to predict this season's champions after Leicester's fairy-tale triumph and his revival of the Blues.

"At the start of the season, it's simple to tell that in this league probably six top teams should fight for the title," Conte said.

"Then you know very well that there are the surprises. With Leicester and Chelsea, two teams won the league and it was a great surprise." - PA SPORT

FootballCHELSEA (EPL)Antonio Conte