Chelsea's Antonio Conte doesn't regret his handling of Willian
LONDON -- Antonio Conte insisted that he does not regret making Willian wait for a run in the Chelsea team, adding that he expects all of his players to earn their starting spots by displaying the right form and attitude.
Willian has registered four goals and one assist over his past three Chelsea starts, and was the outstanding player on the pitch in Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the first leg of the Blues' Champions League round-of-16 tie at Stamford Bridge, scoring once and hitting the post twice.
It was a spectacular return to prominence for the Brazilian, who started just 15 Premier League matches as Chelsea surged to the title last season and has often been disadvantaged by Conte's tendency to favour a 3-5-2 formation against dangerous opponents in this campaign.
But when asked if Willian's recent form means that he should have featured more this season, a bristling Conte replied: "Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench? I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?
"Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past. For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.
"This is not only for one player, but for all my players. This is what a winning mentality is. Not if one player is happy or if he is not happy if he doesn't play. It doesn't matter. I have to make the best decision for the team.
"He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that."
Chelsea's disciplined performance against Barcelona stood in stark contrast to their hapless displays in damaging recent Premier League defeats against Bournemouth and Watford, and Conte indicated that his team will take a similar mindset to Old Trafford when they face Manchester United on Sunday.
"When you have this type of game, when you start the game as underdogs, you have to prepare," he added. "Every game we prepare, but for sure, when you play against a strong team, we must be intelligent. We must be intelligent to understand and change something.
"Otherwise you risk losing, but not 1-0 or 2-0. If you want to go and attack without balance and without a plan, you risk losing in a bad way. Then, if you have a team that you know is able to dominate every game in the world, the approach is totally different."
Conte also dismissed the suggestion that mental weaknesses could be responsible for Chelsea's recent inconsistency.
"No, no," he insisted. "We missed only one game mentality-wise, against Watford. From the start of the season in every game our mentality was top. In this aspect, I must be very pleased because I have a group of players who work very well. There is always great commitment and great behaviour.
"A winning mentality doesn't mean you have to win every game. A winning mentality is about the way you prepare the game, your commitment during training sessions, always at 100 percent and to have good behaviour with your coach, teammates, fans, the opponents.
"To try in every game to start with one idea, to try and win the game... this is a winning mentality. It doesn't mean you are able to win every game. Sometimes the mind can switch off. For example, against Watford, it happened. Not only one player, but the whole team. But we learned a lot in that game."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.