(FILES) This file photo taken on August 6, 2017 shows Chelsea’s Italian head coach Antonio Conte gesturing on the sideline during the FA Community Shield football match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium in north London.
Fuelled by the personal intensity that inspired Chelsea’s return to the top, Conte has vowed to stop the champions becoming the latest victims of the Premier League’s sophomore slump. / AFP PHOTO / Ian KINGTON / NOT FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING USE / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte believes his team’s recent difficulties will enable him to assess the character of the players in his squad.
Chelsea face Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League on Sunday, having crashed to a 3-0 defeat at Roma in the Champions League in mid-week.
Early-season difficulties in the Premier League have left the champions nine points below leaders Manchester City and Conte says it is time for his players to stand up and be counted.
“We are struggling a lot because we are facing a lot of important problems,” Conte told his pre-match press conference at Chelsea’s training base in Cobham, southwest of London on Friday.
“To solve these problems is not simple. In this moment you can see if you are a winner or a loser.
“It’s important to show our character, to be strong, to face the problem in the right way.”
United’s two trips to Stamford Bridge last season were stormy affairs, thanks in part to the presence of former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in the visitors’ dug-out.
Chelsea won both games — 4-0 in the league, 1-0 in the FA Cup — and Mourinho accused Conte of trying to “humiliate” him by whipping up the crowd during the league game.
The pair have subsequently exchanged barbs via the media, but Conte refused to be drawn on his relationship with his United counterpart.
“It’s not important, the relationship between the coaches. We have to respect the job of the other coaches,” said the Italian.
“I have a respect for the job. I stop and finish. He’s an opponent and I’m an opponent for him. After the game it will be the same.”
Conte also declined to discuss Nemanja Matic’s close-season transfer from Chelsea to United, which raised eyebrows due to the Serbian midfielder’s influence under Conte last season.
Chelsea already have a mountain to climb in the title race and Conte conceded it will be difficult to envisage his team reeling City in if the leaders’ stunning form continues.
“Now there is a big problem for all the teams that want to fight for the title and this big problem is Manchester City,” Conte said.
“If they continue in this way it will be very difficult to fight for the title.”
Conte said N’Golo Kante was “progressing well” after six games out with a hamstring injury and might be in a position to start Sunday’s game.
Danny Drinkwater, Kante’s former midfielder partner at Leicester City, could make his first league start for Chelsea, but wing-back Victor Moses remains sidelined with a hamstring complaint.