Why Chelsea will not be afforded the luxury of time in their title defence
When Antonio Conte took over the reigns of a beleaguered Chelsea side last year, few expected the Italian to bag the coveted Premier League title in his first season. But as Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho hogged much of the limelight in the summer front pages, Conte quietly rallied his men in blue to a fifth Premier League trophy.
On his first English expedition, Conte reverted to a trustworthy three-man defense, after a 3-0 mauling at the Emirates Stadium, which helped Chelsea build a platform from which they realised their true potential as the team went on a 13-game winning streak, equalling Arsenal's 2002 record for most consecutive wins in a single season.
From his parades on the touchline to his cinematic exuberance, Conte has been instrumental in the tunes his side has played. But the start of the second season is already showing signs of disharmony for the pied piper of the blue faithful.
Mercurial forward Diego Costa has gone AWOL, resilient Nemanja Matic has been shipped to rivals Manchester United, the likes of Eden Hazard are still to return to full fitness and the squad has been left awfully thin with youngsters having either been sold or loaned out. A Matchday One defeat at home to Burnley left Conte with much to do as he looks to pick up the pieces ahead of a Wembley clash against Tottenham without Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas, both suspended after receiving red cards in the last game.
It was six games into the season last time around when Conte tinkered with his side's formation that aided his title charge. And even with managerial heavyweights at the helm, a lot of clubs found it hard to assert their dominance as Chelsea steered clear at the top last campaign.
While Arsenal and Liverpool grappled with their own issues, they caused disruption, but not enough, in the title discourse. Guardiola was still laying the stones of his philosophy at The Etihad while Mourinho was also recarving his pragmatic United side. Spurs were the sternest test to their London rivals but fell seven points short in the end.
The 2017/18 season, bringing its own set of challenges for all its constituents, may not afford Conte the luxury of time in his defence of the crown. With both the Manchester clubs veneered by their high pedigree managers and Spurs still seeking to prove their mettle, Conte has his work cut out for him.
United find themselves dogged and ready to rumble, as Mourinho has put together a mean looking outfit. City, on the other hand, possess technical sophistication across the park and will look to assert their dominance through possessional superiority.
Meanwhile, an effervescent Spurs, under Pochettino, will look to surprise, once again. And as Spurs host their London rivals this weekend, they have an opportunity to dispense a wounded side that may have slumbered a little too long on the throne. Having been unable to supplement his side in adequate measure, Conte has the added worry of contending in the Champions League this year.
While last campaign was a case of unifying armies, come this season, the assault on the throne will come in many shapes and forms. Conte will have to quickly regroup his comrades in order to successfully defend the coveted Premier League throne.
Although a departure from Diego Costa is necessitated by his absence, in Morata, Chelsea finds a young striker looking to stake his claim on the big stage. With ample firepower in Willian and co and with Hazard still to make his comeback, Conte does have light at the end of the tunnel.
New signing Tiémoué Bakayoko is still to make his debut and will be a much-needed addition required to protect Conte's shaky looking defence, thus far.
The Blues though have to dig deep into their reserves in the interim if they are to ward off the other contenders. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has proven to be ruthless in the past, yielding his iron fist when things even remotely fall apart on the pitch. And as Wembley looks set to up the stakes in the heated London battle with Spurs, Antonio Conte faces a race against time.