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 By Phil Lythell

Willian will seek to retake his place in Chelsea's XI in pivotal campaign

For footballers, the new season always signifies a fresh start. Whether the previous campaign has been a success or failure, the possibility for improved results and performances is a seductive force in banishing most lingering doubts.

For Willian, the 2017-18 season will be undoubtedly be a pivotal one.

Having been named as Chelsea's player of the year during their last title defence two seasons ago, the Brazilian expected to be one of the first names on the team sheet last term. The arrival of Antonio Conte and his preference for a radically improved Pedro Rodriguez meant that he ended up spending most games watching from the bench. The first half of his season was also greatly impacted by the death of his mother after a long-term illness. Form understandably took a dip and it was his added misfortune that saw him return from compassionate leave with his place in the team having been exceptionally well filled by Pedro.

This forthcoming campaign will see Willian able to start afresh unburdened by such testing off-field issues. It will allow him to hit the ground running through preseason and hopefully see him play with the dynamism that has so often lit up Stamford Bridge.

In fairness, he contributed greatly toward last season's title success and the run to the FA Cup final. Willian's brace in the semifinal against Tottenham, his counter-attacking strike at Manchester City and his goal-scoring cameo in the defining 3-0 win at Everton are just three examples of him making the difference.

In total, he scored eight league goals, a fair return for somebody who made the majority of his 34 appearances as a substitute. That he was used largely as a replacement further highlights his professionalism in overcoming personal disappointment at no longer being a regular in the starting XI, yet still performing to the highest level.

After being relegated to a substitute's role last season, Willian will look to regain his place in Chelsea's XI.

Even more commendable is his desire to stay at Chelsea and fight for a first-team place. That he is willing to strive for further success at the club that he has called home for the past four years is particularly pleasing given reported interest from Manchester United with Willian having previously flourished under their manager, Jose Mourinho, during their time together in West London. At almost 29, it would be understandable if he felt like taking on one last challenge in what would probably be his last major contract. A move to the riches on offer on the Chinese Super League has also been mooted, though Willian has insisted that he is only interested in playing for Chelsea.

Part of his decision will be down to being settled in London, another due to the upward trajectory of the club since Conte's installation as manager. Another reason could well be the relative lack of competition in the squad for creative attackers. Since Willian joined the club in the summer of 2013, he has had to battle it out for the manager's affections with the likes of Juan Mata, Oscar, Kevin De Bruyne, Juan Cuadrado, Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah. They have all departed the club while he has remained.

Of course, he has the small matter of Eden Hazard and Pedro to contend with these days, but little else due to Victor Moses' conversion to wing-back and Kenedy seemingly following suit. The wonderfully talented but callow Charly Musonda has been elevated to the first team and will hopefully prove up to the task, though it will take something special for him to catch the eye ahead of the experienced and proven Willian.

It is possible that Willian could play in a starting XI alongside both Hazard and Pedro, depending on Conte's preferred formation. The 3-4-3 that was deployed for the majority of last season would make that unlikely unless Hazard was to play as the nominal central striker. A switch to 4-2-4, another of Conte's systems, could see all three included with Hazard playing in a free role off the front man and Willian and Pedro performing as conventional wingers. Willian's defensive diligence could even see him fill in at wing-back as Pedro has done on occasion. Versatility can be a hindrance to some players' ambitions, but under the demanding Conte it is a valuable asset.

That he will feature regularly this coming campaign is a given due to his exceptional quality in several areas. Along with Marcos Alonso, he remains the best crosser of the ball at the club while he is head and shoulders above anybody else with a dead ball, whether delivering into the box or curling it into the top corner. His work rate never dips and his explosive space over short distances, coupled with his deft touch, means he is always capable of conjuring something from nothing.

In short, Willian is the ultimate squad member, able to undertake a number of tasks. This season, however, his aim will be to excel from the first whistle rather than the bench.

Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.


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