Chelsea's road to defending Premier League title begins in win vs. Watford
LONDON -- They have wasted no time in updating Stamford Bridge to honour Antonio Conte and his Premier League title winners, with "Home of the Champions" banners positioned inside and outside the stadium just days after the top spot was confirmed with victory over West Brom on Friday.
For the fifth time in 12 years, Chelsea are champions of England, but history shows that only once have they been able to defend their title, when Jose Mourinho led the club to back-to-back championships in 2005 and 2006.
The challenge for Conte now is to build the dynasty that Mourinho was expected to create during his two spells as manager, a task he ultimately fell short of achieving on both occasions.
Yet while celebration was in the air in West London, as well as the smoke from the postmatch fireworks, Conte will know only too well that milking the moment and resting on his laurels will be the surest way to cut short his reign in charge at the club.
This entertaining but mistake-ridden 4-3 victory against Watford will at least focus minds at Chelsea on the reality that the biggest danger they face is standing still.
Their past two title-winning managers -- Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti -- were sacked the following season for failing to live up to the demands of owner Roman Abramovich and, even if Conte goes on to emulate Ancelotti by adding the FA Cup to the title in his first season, it will offer no protection if results go awry during the 2017-18 campaign.
Conte, if he rejects strong interest from Inter Milan to move to the San Siro this summer, will start with a clean slate next August, so every moment of preparation between now and then will be crucial in determining whether Chelsea are able to defend their title next season.
That will be the minimum objective set by Abramovich. The Russian will expect a serious assault on the Champions League too, but one certainty about next season is that it will be a wholly different challenge from this one.
Defending a title, for whatever reason, is a challenge beyond most Premier League champions, so that will be the first hurdle for Chelsea to clear. But after taking advantage of a lack of European football this season, Chelsea will have to compete on the domestic front as well as against the cream of the Champions League next year.
Conte will need to ensure that his tactics remain one step ahead of the rest, having caught out his rivals by successfully imposing his 3-4-3 formation on his team this season. Opponents are already wising up to countering that approach, so the former Juventus coach needs to evolve his game plan as well as add to his squad.
This encounter with Watford was day one in phase two of the Conte project.
Many of those nine players who had started 30 or more league games this season were rested, as were Pedro and Victor Moses, who have started 26 and 28, respectively.
This was an occasion for the fringe players to show they are worthy of a role next season or prove to Conte and Abramovich that they are not up to it. For many, it was the latter.
As for John Terry, it was the beginning of the end of the long goodbye, with this and Sunday's home game against Sunderland set to be his farewell outings at Stamford Bridge.
Conte has long since discounted Terry, and though the captain got himself on the scoresheet with the opening goal, his mistake directly led to Watford's equaliser moments later and showed that his manager has been right to nudge him toward the exit.
"It was a crazy minute," Terry said. "I got on the scoresheet, and a minute later made a mistake and let [Etienne Capoue] in. Mixed emotions.
"I'm delighted to get on the scoresheet. But any young kid watching, if in doubt, get it out. That's what I should have done."
Terry aside, are the rest of the fringe players up to it?
Chelsea unquestionably need reinforcements this summer, even before they address the thorny issue of speculation surrounding the futures of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. If either leaves Stamford Bridge, Conte will find a huge hole in his team that will be extremely difficult to fill.
The unconvincing performance against Watford highlighted flaws in Chelsea's squad, however.
Nathan Ake was given a chance at centre-half, but if Conte lands Athletic Bilbao's Aymeric Laporte, Ake will struggle for game time next season. As will Kurt Zouma, who was as shaky as Terry and Ake against Watford's muscular forwards.
Nathaniel Chalobah, Kenedy and Michy Batshuayi do not look good enough to convince Conte that they can make key contributions in the league or Champions League, while Willian is unlikely to want to hang around for another season of limited opportunities, particularly with Mourinho ready to offer him a regular starting spot at Manchester United.
Even if he keeps all of his top players, Conte needs at least four new signings to keep Chelsea ahead of the pack. Laporte might tick the box at centre-half, but the manager also needs reliable cover for Costa, more options in midfield and perhaps even an upgrade on Moses, who has excelled at right-wing-back but might find life tougher in the Champions League.
As champions, though, Chelsea will go into the summer transfer market in a position of strength.
They have allowed that to go to waste in the past, so Conte cannot allow them to make the same mistake this time because it will be him who pays the price if it all goes wrong.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_