Chelsea look to Carabao Cup as Premier League title challenge fades
It is fair to say that Saturday's 0-0 draw against Norwich City in the FA Cup will not live long in the memory. A team featuring nine changes from the midweek draw at Arsenal struggled to knit together with none of the Blues' usual fluency in evidence. While the disappointing performance was rewarded with an equally unwelcome replay, it is clear that that competition is not currently Antonio Conte's top priority.
Although there might be more glamorous trophies on offer, at present the most attainable this season appears to be the Carabao Cup. The Premier League is always the primary target at the beginning of any season though with Chelsea sitting 16 points behind runaway leaders Manchester City with just 16 matches remaining the chances of overhauling Pep Guardiola's side are virtually non-existent. The Champions League is still in the club's crosshairs despite the mighty Barcelona representing a considerable obstacle to their progress in the next round. Even if Chelsea get past the Catalans there will still be plenty of football to be played against the highest calibre opponents before they experience the merest sniff of glory.
The Carabao Cup might be the poorest of relations to each of those competitions but Chelsea are just 270 minutes from potentially lifting the trophy. That seems to have been enough to focus Conte's mind in the short term with all of his key players sitting out the draw at Carrow Road. Eden Hazard, N'Golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas, Thibaut Courtois and Andreas Christensen were all left in London while Alvaro Morata was a second half substitute as Chelsea sought to avoid adding yet another fixture to their already demanding schedule.
All of these players can be expected to start Wednesday's Carabao Cup semifinal final first leg against Arsenal. Recent years have seen Premier League sides use the competition as an opportunity to field those on the fringes of the first team though Chelsea have not been shy in including some of their bigger hitters this season. If that was the case against Nottingham Forest in the third round -- where Fabregas, Hazard and Christensen all started -- then it surely will be in a London derby with the prospect of a Wembley final on the line.
With this being Chelsea's eighth midweek game in as many weeks and the ensuing three Wednesdays all containing competitive fixtures, there is still every chance of Conte employing some rotation. David Zappacosta's improved displays in his last two appearances might see him given a start. Danny Drinkwater made the lineup in each of the last two rounds and might be afforded another chance, a move that would allow the erratic Tiemoue Bakayoko some time out of the spotlight. There is sure to be some clamour for young Ethan Ampadu to be included given his brief but impressive showings this season though any opportunity is likely to come from the bench rather than in the full 90 minutes of a hotly contested derby.
Conte is certain to field a strong side and one that is likely to be stronger on paper in almost every area than Arsenal, certainly in midfield and defence. While that is clearly an advantage, it must be noted that Chelsea have failed to win any of their last four meetings against Arsenal, drawing both their Premier League clashes this season and losing in both the FA Cup final and the Community Shield. Excuses can be made for all of those results but the bottom line is that Conte has beaten Arsene Wenger only once in the six matches between them since he came to England. If the Blues are to progress to the final, a second victory at Stamford Bridge would certainly help.
The Chelsea boss and his team will take some confidence from the fact that they should have emerged victorious from their most recent encounter, last Wednesday's 2-2 draw at the Emirates. Only a host of missed chances and the intervention of the crossbar meant the Blues failed to turn one point into three. Arsenal's injury problems also show no sign of abating with Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka doubtful with the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal among a lengthy list of crocked players.
With a clean bill of health among his own squad and playing under the floodlights in a London derby in front of what should be a crackling atmosphere, Conte will be confident of getting the semifinal off to the best possible start with a decent victory.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.