Bring on the dark horses

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Chelsea FC manager Antonio Conte. Picture: Action Images


Tim Harrison

By Tim Harrison

If Chelsea found last year’s Premier League tough going, this campaign adds different challenges.

Manchester’s big two expect to dominate, with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola flashing the cash and filling their ranks with fresh talent.

Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal anticipate title tilts, and West Ham have renewed faith now the Pickfords vans have left.

All of which suits Antonio Conte: no unrealistic expectations, no European distractions, no media pressure.

On paper, for 2016/17, even a ninth place finish would constitute an improvement and a reasonable season for Chelsea.

Yet Conte proved at the Euros, with an unspectacular Italian squad, that he has the ability and enthusiasm to wring good results from limited resources.

Whisper it, but the Blues will be this season’s dark horses.

Pivotal to the challenge are club captain John Terry and wise counsel Steve Holland, whose knowledge of opponents, tactics and techniques counterbalances the Italian coach’s relatively light English experience.

Chelsea and West Ham play on Monday under the Stamford Bridge floodlights. It will be lively on the touchline. Conte and Slaven Bilic head and boot every ball, mirroring each move in their technical areas.

Some suggest Conte works his players too hard in training. Poppycock! Mourinho’s laid-back attitude was a major part of the Blues’ undoing last season, and longer skill sessions and harder schedules are precisely what fans demand.

Eliminate last season’s bewildering capitulations and calamities, and a squad bolstered by Leicester midfielder N’Golo Kante and young Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi should inspire Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas to up their game after encouraging performances in the States in pre-season.

The ‘newbie’ who does have to win over sceptics, however, is Juan Cuadrado, back after a loan spell at Juventus. Conte believes in him, even if Chelsea fans remain to be convinced.

The waiting is over. As they say in Rio, let the games commence.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and unless specifically stated are not necessarily those of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham.

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