Chelsea performed with quality and professionalism in Azerbaijan, but the red card inside the opening twenty minutes means the Blues’ squad depth is still yet to be truly tested.
When Willian was brought down in the Qarabag penalty area just minutes after the home side had struck the crossbar in Baku, Antonio Conte will naturally have been filled with joy when he saw the referee point to the penalty spot. But the red card that was then shown to Qarabag captain Rashad Sadygov truly was a get out of jail free card. Of course, the strong likelihood is that Chelsea would have gone on to win yesterday’s game even if Qarabag had eleven men on the pitch for the full ninety minutes. However, the fact that the match was effectively ended after nineteen is a huge unexpected bonus for Chelsea and their manager.
— Breathe Chelsea (@BreatheChels) November 23, 2017
Conte has made a clear effort in not just one but three press conferences in the past week to make sure that everyone knows he is unhappy with the Premier League’s fixture scheduling. He has a point. Those in charge of England’s top flight have long been known to schedule fixtures at times that is best for TV companies and gaining the largest possible audience as opposed to worrying about match-going fans and even the teams themselves – something that has undoubtedly contributed to the poor performance of English sides in recent Champions League seasons. However, it is not the Premier League’s fault that Chelsea drew Qarabag in their Champions League group and had to endure such a long flight and difficult time difference, nor is it their fault that the Blues’ first team squad is so skinny.
The fact that Chelsea played on Wednesday evening rather than on Tuesday like Liverpool did is obviously a slight disadvantage ahead of the clash between the two sides on Saturday, but the truth is Antonio Conte would have been equally worried about the fitness of his squad even if his team were playing a day earlier. After a sticky spell in October, Chelsea have got themselves back on track and are playing as well as they have done all season at present, but it is only now that the squad is set to be truly tested with the question marks we all raised about the club’s summer recruitment about to be put under the microscope.
The inconvenient truth for Chelsea is that they headed into the Qarabag fixture with only one available recognised striker in the entire squad in Alvaro Morata, a player that Conte has already admitted is not used to playing three games in a week. Michy Batshuayi, Morata’s deputy, is currently sidelined with a foot injury meaning Conte was forced into reverting to the 3-4-3 formation for the game with Eden Hazard playing as a centre forward. Hazard’s unbelievable quality compensates somewhat for this being a far from ideal situation, and Conte will be well aware that he could face an equally if not more difficult situation if Marcos Alonso was to also pick up an injury as the only current left wing-back at Chelsea.
Hazard giving Chelsea the lead from the spot against ten-man Qarabag was therefore an absolute gift for the Italian manager. A blessing ahead of a crucial Premier League tie. After ten minutes it looked as though the Londoners were in for a real game in Azerbaijan, yet they ended up able to play three quarters of the match at a leisurely pace.
I have no intention or desire to play down Chelsea’s important win against Qarabag as the football played at times was top quality with Willian’s goals and overall performance a particular stand-out. Yet the fact Conte had to bring on Alvaro Morata midway through the second half when the game was already won in order to give Eden Hazard a rest was demonstrative of the lack of personnel that could catch Chelsea out in the upcoming busy schedule. The next three weeks see Chelsea play Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday. Each one of those midweek games is likely to prove tougher than this Qarabag fixture ended up being.
The positives Conte can take ahead of these games is that Victor Moses is in line to return to the squad for Liverpool on Saturday, while Michy Batshuayi is also likely to be back available within the next week. Last night’s 4-0 win also means that the Atletico game is not of as greater importance as it would have been had Chelsea failed to secure their qualification to the knockout stages of the Champions League, and though a first placed finish in Group C would be nice, there is a good chance the Blues will draw very strong opposition regardless of whether they finish first or second.
We know from last season that Conte’s Chelsea tend to snowball their success with long winning runs once things click into place, and recent results suggest this team are indeed hitting top form at a good time. But given the wobble Chelsea suffered without one key player when N’Golo Kante was injured last month, the club will be needing to wrap up the likes of the Frenchman, Morata and Marcos Alonso in cotton wool between games in these next few weeks.