Conte is a realist and he's right to curb Chelsea's title expectations
Chelsea's lacklustre display last Saturday against West Ham culminated in a deserved defeat and led to Blues boss Antonio Conte commenting that retaining the Premier League title was "impossible" given the loss to the Hammers was his side's fourth inside the first half of the campaign.
Conte's remarks were met with a fair amount of criticism on social media from Chelsea fans who felt that the team lacked motivation and commitment. How could the players be expected to raise their game if the manager had given up the chase of runaway leaders Manchester City? Had the London club slipped to another defeat in the midweek fixture away to Huddersfield Town, Conte's comments would have come under further scrutiny and there's no doubt that rumours of the sack would have been frenziedly whipped up.
Instead of course, Chelsea coasted to a 3-1 victory and, as irony would have it, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Willian -- two players who have found themselves the focal point of fan ire of late -- put in excellent performances.
After the game, Conte reiterated his stance regarding the title race, highlighting that he was simply telling the truth, but this time around because Chelsea had played with fire in their bellies against Huddersfield, the keyboard warriors kept a low profile. Like it or not, the Italian is correct. Man City, now unbeaten in 17 games and on a record-breaking 15-match winning streak, are likely to be champions. With an imperious squad it's difficult to see how Pep Guardiola's men can be caught given the 11-point advantage they now have over neighbours Manchester United.
Chelsea, currently third, are 14 points adrift of the leaders, and the way things stand at the moment, Conte the realist knows that securing a Champions League berth is one of his main priorities. Assuming Man City are just about home and hosed, Man United, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal along with the Blues are the five teams most likely to be in the mix come May for the three remaining places to compete in Europe's elite competition and Conte must ensure his side make the cut.
Next up for Chelsea is a home game with Southampton, a side that were comprehensively beaten 4-1 on their own turf on Wednesday by resurgent Leicester City. With creative genius Eden Hazard in scintillating form and striker Alvaro Morata available for selection again following a one-game layoff to recover from a back complaint and fatigue, the Blues look well equipped to mete out similar punishment to the Saints at Stamford Bridge.
While Chelsea supporters will have high hopes of seeing goals from Hazard and Morata, not forgetting the equally capable supporting cast of Willian and Pedro, who both found the net against Huddersfield, Conte ever the pragmatist advised that he had sensed his team could suffer against Southampton and that they must pay great attention.
Saints boss Mauricio Pellegrino tore into his side following the Leicester thrashing and he will demand they show commitment and remain focussed at the Bridge. Having recently ground out a 1-1 draw with Arsenal at St. Mary's and almost secured the same result at the Eithad against Manchester City before going down to a ridiculously late Raheem Sterling winner, Pellegrino's players are clearly capable of frustrating higher-profile opponents and causing the type of suffering that Conte is alluding to.
Last weekend, West Ham did what no other team has managed to do of late and that is keep Hazard quiet and Chelsea certainly suffered as a result at the London Stadium. While the mercurial Belgium international didn't score in the following game against Huddersfield, playing as a false nine he was at the hub of the Blues' forward play and the best player on the pitch. The Terriers' defence simply couldn't cope with his surging runs and interplay with Willian and Pedro.
For the Saints match, Conte must decide whether or not to retain the trio or recall Morata. With nine league goals and four assists to his name this season, there is no doubting the Spain international's capability, but Chelsea obviously play a different style of game with the striker in their ranks. The question is which strategy will work best against Southampton, who are one or two defeats away from finding themselves in a relegation dogfight and are likely to put 10 men behind the ball and rely on counterattacks to try to get something from the game.
Whatever his opening gambit is, Conte will have plenty of options on the bench to try to ensure any suffering Chelsea may endure is relatively painless. The Blues' manager's dour logic may continue to cause consternation in some quarters, but with so much at stake it makes good sense to be realistic and proceed with caution.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco