Antonio Conte confirms David Luiz to return to Chelsea squad vs. West Brom
LONDON -- David Luiz is back in the Chelsea squad for Saturday's match against West Brom but faces a battle with Andreas Christensen to win back his starting spot, manager Antonio Conte has said.
Conte did not indulge questions about his relationship with Luiz, who was surprisingly dropped from Chelsea's matchday squad for the 1-0 win over Manchester United prior to the November international break amid reports of tensions with his head coach.
The 30-year-old has trained at Cobham for the past 10 days having been omitted from the Brazil squad, and Conte reiterated that every player has a responsibility to come to terms with his decisions over team selection.
"I repeat, it was a technical decision," Conte said of dropping Luiz. "When it's a technical decision, every single player has to react well and accept my decision. It's normal, this."
Asked if his relationship with Luiz has been affected, Conte replied: "I think that I stay here to speak for the team before an important game against West Bromwich, and not to speak about one single player. I don't like that.
"I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay great attention to. This is the most important thing."
Christensen shone in Luiz's place at the heart of Chelsea's back three against United, and Conte said the academy graduate's performances in recent weeks have given him another valuable option.
"It's positive," Conte added of Christensen's form. "Last season I didn't have this opportunity [to rotate Luiz]. This season, with Christensen, I have another opportunity, another really good opportunity, because Christensen is showing himself to be an important player for us.
"For sure, he's only 21 years old, but he's playing with great maturity. I hope to continue to improve in this way."
Chelsea's youth development strategy was a focus of the international break as on-loan prospects Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham made their senior England debuts, leading to suggestions that Conte may be inclined to recall one or both in January to bolster his squad.
But the Chelsea boss insisted he has no regrets over allowing Loftus-Cheek and Abraham to develop away from Stamford Bridge, adding that regular Premier League football will be vital to ensure their continued progress.
"I think we are talking about two young players, and two really good players, and for sure Ruben and Tammy will be the future for Chelsea," Conte said. "Now it's right for them to play regularly. Ruben, I read his interview. He said it's perfect to play this season regularly.
"It's very important for his development, and to come back and play for Chelsea with great maturity. It's the same path as Christensen, who played for two years on loan and now he's playing regularly for Chelsea. He's a young player, but he's a Chelsea player and an important Chelsea player."
The surprise resignation of technical director Michael Emenalo last week raised fresh questions about Conte's relationship with the Chelsea hierarchy, but the Italian reiterated that he was sad to see him go.
"For sure this is a loss, a big loss for us," he said. "Our relationship was very good. He helped me a lot last season, and also this season. For sure it was a surprise for me, his resignation from his job.
"At the same time I think that we have to respect his professional decision, and I wish for him and his family the best for the present and the future."
Chelsea's injury problems have eased over the international break. Only Michy Batshuayi (ankle), Charly Musonda (knee) and Victor Moses (hamstring) are definitely out of the trip to The Hawthorns, though Conte is optimistic of having Moses back from next week.
There is no margin for error against West Brom with Chelsea already nine points adrift of Premier League leaders Manchester City, and Conte said it is hard to imagine Pep Guardiola's men being caught in the title race if they maintain their recent standards.
"I must be honest, now Manchester City are playing very well and it's very difficult to think that you can catch them because, if they continue in this way, it will be very difficult for any team to try and fight for the title," Conte continued.
"We have to try to fight until the end. But, for sure, it won't be easy because I think Manchester City are very strong. They were a very good team last season. This season they worked very well during the transfer market and it is a team that, after this transfer market, showed themselves to be very, very strong.
"Football can be strange. It's very difficult now to predict who will win the title in this league, but Manchester City are [on] a very positive path. It will be very difficult for the other teams."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.