Pick Morata or sell him
Conte's indecision over Chelsea striker makes no sense
On Sunday, Manchester United host Chelsea in the English Premier League. Imagine the outrage if United striker Romelu Lukaku finds himself dropped for such a prestigious fixture.
Manager Jose Mourinho would be written off as being too negative again.
He's cynical. He's timid. He's a tactical coward when faced with half-decent opposition.But it wouldn't happen.
Even Mourinho recognises the value of an experienced, totemic No.9 up front. And yet, Antonio Conte doesn't. Or the Chelsea manager just doesn't trust Alvaro Morata.
The £58-million (S$107m) signing managed a seven-minute cameo against Barcelona in the Champions League last-16, first-leg tie yesterday (Singapore time) and achieved nothing but a booking.
Morata is a two-time Champions League winner, a three-time Champions League finalist, but a bit-part player at Chelsea, a second stringer when it really matters.
Conte must pick him against the Red Devils or risk losing an established No.9 for the second time in two seasons.
Chelsea's disciplined 1-1 draw against Barcelona has largely spared Conte the kind of criticism that his rivals routinely suffer for making similar decisions.
Across London, Arsene Wenger was castigated for dropping his £50m signing, Alexandre Lacazette, in key contests.
The Arsenal striker seemed to shrink as a result. His confidence vanished. The lion of Lyon looks a lamb to the slaughter at the Emirates, a confused forward struggling with his manager's lack of faith.
Morata, 25, must sense the deja vu. He's a Spain international, incubated at the Bernabeu and toughened up in Turin. He handled the bright lights of both Real Madrid and Juventus.
Stamford Bridge promised to be a cakewalk in comparison.
But he's the latest No.9 to suffer at the hands of his unpredictable manager. A clash of temperaments ended Diego Costa's time at Chelsea, but Morata's struggle isn't personal. It's strictly business. But it's a strange business nonetheless.
Speaking to the media, Conte insisted that picking Morata alongside Eden Hazard against Barcelona would've been "suicidal"; a plausible theory a couple of years ago perhaps.
But Ernesto Valverde's boys are different beasts from the beguiling beauties of Luis Enrique's era.
On paper, Valverde's 4-4-2 looks like an unapologetic throwback to the scrappier days when Gary Lineker was knocking them in from six yards at the Nou Camp.
Obviously, this isn't the case. Any side with the magisterial Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi can be neither ordinary nor conventional.
But by Valverde's admission, the Catalans aren't quite as fluid as they were when Neymar was scampering around.
N'Golo Kante's gatekeeping in front of a diligent back four ensured a quiet night for Thibaut Courtois. The Spaniards did not manage a shot on target in the first half.
If they were not quite there for the taking, they were certainly there to be tested. Picking a No.9 was not a "suicidal" option. But Morata and Olivier Giroud were both benched, underlining Conte's problem with Chelsea centre forwards, an unfortunate development at a club that adored Costa and Didier Drogba.
A fine performance from goalscorer Willian almost vindicated Conte's caution, but the Brazilian's heroics only highlighted another selection head-scratcher.
Conte doesn't usually fancy Willian either, despite the forward's rare ability to nip around defenders in close proximity and find the target.
Picking Pedro Rodriguez, Hazard and Willian, at home, against a Barcelona side who currently favour a more conventional approach to paper over the gaps in creativity smacked of conservatism.
Conte could be forgiven for such an approach in the second leg at the Nou Camp, but a bolder approach at the Bridge might have snatched victory.
But his false striker routine limited Hazard's influence, forcing the Belgian to play both centre forward and link man. He didn't really succeed in either position.
Conte may continue to talk tactics in the build-up to the Old Trafford game, but the reality appears to be much simpler.
He isn't keen on his main striker for the second time in two seasons. He's spent £58m on a Champions League substitute, an uncomfortable situation that may not be entirely of his making.
Morata has undoubtedly struggled with form and fitness of late. He's also dealing with the tragic death of a close friend, which soon puts a goal drought into perspective.
But if Conte benches Morata for a second time in a critical fixture, then the restless striker may seek to cut his losses in the summer.
Chelsea will once again be looking for a new No.9, along with a new manager.
Conte believes ‘near-perfect game’ gives Chelsea quarter-finals hope
Chelsea coach Antonio Conte said that his side played almost the "perfect game" against Champions League favourites Barcelona yesterday morning (Singapore time), but he was still disappointed with the 1-1 home leg result.
Chelsea soaked up Barcelona pressure before Willian scored in the 62nd minute of their last-16, first-leg tie.
"We were very close to playing a perfect game," Conte said.
"We made one mistake but, against opponents like (Lionel) Messi, (Andres) Iniesta and (Luis) Suarez, if you make a mistake you pay."
Barca had two shots on target and scored with the second, when Iniesta intercepted a rash pass from Andreas Christensen and cut the ball back to Messi in the 75th minute with the Chelsea defence out of position.
The goal ended Messi's 12-year wait and a goal drought of eight games against Chelsea.
"It's a pity and we are disappointed with the final result but, at the same time, this game gives us a lot of confidence for the second leg," Conte said.
"The qualification (for the quarter-finals) is open. It won't be easy but, tonight, we showed that if we are ready to work very hard together defensively, have the right feeling when we have the ball, then we have the chance to do something incredible at the Nou Camp."
Echoing Conte's belief that qualification is possible are Chelsea goalscorer Willian and Eden Hazrd, though they believe going on the attack at the Nou Camp in the second leg will give them a better chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
"It is still open, we showed that we can compete and we will need another excellent performance at the Nou Camp to go through," said livewire Willian, who was twice denied by the woodwork in the first half.
"You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who have 70 per cent of the ball. We have to go there, attack and score because defending at the Nou Camp for 90 minutes is an eternity, it is a suicide mission.We have to play our game."
Chelsea have knocked Barcelona out twice in the knockout stages - most recently in the semi-final in 2012 when they won 1-0 at home before drawing 2-2 in Spain. A similar result in the return leg would put them through and Hazard said that they must be positive.
"We shouldn't think defensively about the second leg because if we do, we would be in a lot of danger," Hazard said.
"We will go there trying to win because we have to score and we will try to pull off the perfect game as we did today except for the small mistake that we made. It's not over. Qualification is still possible."
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde left Stamford Bridge pleased with his side's effort in a match of "contrasting styles".
"It was a clash of styles," said Valverde.
"Two very different teams. We had lots of possession close to their area but, after the first few minutes, they began testing us on the counter-attack.
"We were just lacking a bit of quality in the final third and they defended very well. There was a lot of traffic around their box and we struggled to break through. We just lacked clear-cut chances.
"Also, we gave too much space to Willian to shoot. The pass to him was perfect, the control was perfect.
"They might be happy with the result... They pressed us high and made it difficult for us, but anything can change in the Nou Camp.
"The away goal isn't definitive, but it is important."
Chelsea travel to Barcelona for the second leg on March 15. - REUTERS