Chelsea’s Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard celebrates scoring his team’s third goal during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on December 3, 2016.
Paul ELLIS / AFP
Antonio Conte has called on Chelsea to underline their status as favourites for the Premier League title with a dominant display against West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.
Conte’s side are three points clear at the top after a blistering run of eight successive victories including last weekend’s impressive triumph at title rivals Manchester City.
The Blues have scored 22 goals and conceded just two in their winning streak, but Chelsea boss Conte believes he will have a clearer picture of his team’s title chances at the end of the busy Christmas programme.
Pointing out to his players that Chelsea started the season as also-rans in the title race according to many pundits, Conte called on them to prove they can cope with the pressure of leading from the front by seeing off Albion at Stamford Bridge.
“It’s difficult to accept (being favourites) because we have played only 14 games,” Conte said.
“We started as underdogs this season, but I suppose it’s normal if you’re playing good football and winning a lot of games.
“It’s important to continue, that from this win we don’t lose our hunger.”
On paper, Chelsea have a golden opportunity to cement pole position heading into the new year as their fixtures after the West Brom clash are against Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke City.
But Conte stressed the importance of focusing only on the next opponent and demanded his players show their commitment by playing with high intensity in training.
“It’s always difficult to say if these five games are a great opportunity,” Conte said. “This league has taught me that every game is very tough.
“If you don’t face every game with great concentration and preparation you can find yourself in trouble.
“Sunday is the type of game we can find difficult if we don’t put the same concentration, the same focus, that we had in the previous games.
“The best reply from my players is to be focused every day during the training session.
“If you have a good training session you show me that you are focused for the game.
“It’s important to talk with the players, but the reply in training and on the pitch is important.”
– Compelling –
Conte insisted “January is far away” as he fended off transfer window questions amid speculation of an audacious bid for Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez.
Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas has been linked with a move, but the Spaniard produced a compelling performance against City and Conte has been delighted with his recent improvement after a poor start to the season.
Asked if Fabregas provided an example for the whole squad with his composure in biding his time then taking his chance, Conte said: “For sure, I want this.
“If there is good competition, great competition, this is very important.
“If I haven’t a problem for the decision and it’s always the same line-up, that’s not good.
“It means that our level, our squad is improving. It’s important to continue this challenge.”
Albion shouldn’t be underestimated by Conte’s men as Tony Pulis’s side will arrive in west London in confident mood after winning three of their last four matches.
Pulis, known for his conservative game-plans, has sparked the Albion surge by playing a more expansive style of late.
But that attacking philosophy will be tested by fixtures against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in the next few weeks.
“Let’s get through the tough Christmas period, with difficult games coming up, starting with Chelsea on Sunday,” Pulis said.
“Then we’ve got Swansea, Man United and Arsenal too. They’re really tough games, great games to play, full houses over the festive period.”