Football

Conte: We have the right balance

Chelsea manager explains why the Blues have defied doubters to top the table

Antonio Conte believes his Chelsea side have defied doubters by occupying a familiar position at the top of the English Premier League.

Chelsea were champions when they capitulated under Jose Mourinho, who was sacked 12 months ago before the Blues recovered to finish in 10th place.

Conte, Mourinho's permanent successor, has steered the Blues to a club record 11 successive Premier League wins and a six-point lead ahead of Monday's Boxing Day clash with Bournemouth.

"At the start of the season, not one person thought or forecast that Chelsea would be top of the table for many reasons," Conte said.

"Because the squad were the same as last season's. Because our transfer market wasn't great. In spite of that, we found the right balance. My players, the club and I."

CHRISTMAS DAY LEADERS

On his rejuvenated Blues now being title favourites, Conte added: "I prefer to be favourites on the pitch, not with words. With words, you can change your favourites very quickly."

The squad are largely the same as the one which saw Chelsea claim a first Premier League title in five years under Mourinho in May 2015, although David Luiz, Victor Moses, N'Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso are new to that line-up.

Chelsea led on Christmas Day then and, on each of the four occasions, the Blues have won the Premier League title when they were top on Dec 25.

Six times in the last seven seasons, the Christmas leaders have gone on to win the title - 2013 was the exception when Liverpool slipped from the summit.

And Conte believes his players will be unfazed by topping the table at Christmas, while insisting it is the final standings which matter.

"These players, in the past, have had the habit of staying top of the table," the former Juventus and Italy boss said.

"It's not the first time for me or for my players. But my players and I prefer not to look at the table at this moment.

"Now it's more important to take the three points and increase your tally.

"Then we can look at the end of the season and see where we are. Then it's important."

Conte disagrees with the theory that there is less pressure to chase.

"I'd prefer the pressure to stay top of the table," Conte said.

"We earned this position. Now it's important to keep this position. It won't be easy.

"For sure, to arrive at Christmas and to open the newspaper and see you are top of the table, that's fantastic.

"The players deserve this. But, in my experience, it's important to keep this position.

"You can keep this position only through hard work and face every game with great concentration, with great focus, with great will to fight and to win the game."

Bournemouth beat Chelsea in the final weeks of Mourinho's reign and Conte expects a challenge, especially with striker Diego Costa and midfielder Kante suspended after each accumulated five yellow cards.

Conte is taking time to find a solution to replace Costa, who has scored 13 Premier League goals this season.

And the Italian is considering tinkering with the 3-4-3 formation which has been used in the winning run.

Michy Batshuayi could be a straight replacement or Conte could deploy two central forwards.

"For this reason, this is a good test for us because we play this game without two players very important for our team," Conte said.

SEX ABUSE

"I have four days to evaluate the situation and to try to find the best solution for the team."

Meanwhile, the Premier League said on Thursday that Chelsea did not break any rules in failing to report allegations of historical sex abuse made by their former player Gary Johnson in 2014.

Johnson, 57, said earlier this month he had been abused by former Chelsea chief scout Eddie Heath in the 1970s, receiving £50,000 (S$90,000) from the club in settlement in 2015.

Heath died in the early 1980s before the allegations became public and Chelsea apologised to Johnson on Dec 3 for the abuse he suffered.

"After careful consideration, the Board has determined that no Premier League rules were broken by the club not reporting this matter to them in 2014," the Premier League said. - WIRE SERVICES

eplCHELSEA (EPL)Antonio Conte