Antonio Conte laments what he views as Chelsea's unbalanced fixture list
This week, which began in West Bromwich and will end in Liverpool via Baku, is the most spectacularly nomadic stretch of Chelsea's season. If you ask Antonio Conte, it is also much more difficult than it needed to be.
The Italian has barely missed an opportunity in recent days to reiterate what he views as an unbalanced fixture list that requires Chelsea to face Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday afternoon, less than 72 hours after completing a 5,000-mile round trip to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Chelsea's players and staff did not get back to Cobham until 5 a.m. on Thursday, after a six-hour flight which Conte revealed he would be forced to spend preparing his Friday training session and finalising his tactical plan for a crucial match with a Premier League top-four rival.
It is the second time this season that Conte has felt disadvantaged by Chelsea's fixture list; the first came in September, when his players were required to take on Pep Guardiola's rampant Manchester City three days after winning an epic Champions League war of attrition with Atletico Madrid.
Then as now, Chelsea's domestic assignment was moved to the 5:30 p.m. slot on Saturday to be shown in the U.K. on BT Sport. But for those who assume that this is simply a case of a broadcaster putting its own interests above those of the competition or clubs it is televising, the reality is more complicated.
Under the current domestic Premier League broadcast deal, the only weekend slot available to BT Sport is Saturday at 5:30 p.m.; the rest of the Saturday (12:45 p.m.) and Sunday (1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.) times belong to Sky Sports. This means that if BT want to televise your weekend game, it will be at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.
With the City and Liverpool matches, BT had first pick of the weekend's fixtures and, understandably, chose the undisputed heavyweight clash in each case. They also submitted these picks to the Premier League in mid-July, more than a month before the Champions League group-stage draw was made on Aug. 24.
The idea of giving Chelsea adequate recovery time after their Azerbaijan odyssey could not be a consideration because Qarabag did not even confirm their place in the Champions League group stage until Aug. 23, with the draw and fixture order decided by UEFA the following day.
In short, Chelsea were simply unlucky to draw the most remote Champions League opponent possible (though perhaps not that unlucky, given that they put 10 goals past Qarabag in two games), and doubly unfortunate that the Baku trip fell on the Wednesday prior to a particularly big Premier League match.
The rise of teams who pose this level of travel problems for most European clubs in UEFA competition is a relatively new phenomenon; Qarabag first qualified for the Europa League group stage in 2014, while Kazakh giants Astana were only formed in 2008 and first achieved Champions League qualification in 2015. Special dispensation may be made for their opponents in the future, but trends must first become established before they prompt a reaction.
If accommodations can be made at all, of course. The other aspect to all of this is that the modern football calendar is more tightly packed and governed by distinct and competing considerations than ever before. Even when Borussia Dortmund's team bus suffered a horrific bomb attack en route to take on Monaco in a Champions League quarter-final in April, a lack of feasible alternative dates created pressure to play the postponed match 24 hours later.
"The truth is it is extremely difficult to get the 38 rounds of Premier League matches scheduled around international dates, burgeoning UEFA competition slots and our two domestic cup competitions," the Premier League's director of football Mike Foster said. This domestic season is even more constricted, as it concludes one week earlier to give England more time to prepare for the World Cup.
One potential workaround for the specific problem Chelsea have faced is to re-arrange the Premier League broadcast packages so that both Sky and BT (or any other future bidder) would have the flexibility to televise matches on Saturday or Sunday, factoring in the workload of the clubs involved.
New potential time slots -- reported to be 7:45 p.m. on Saturdays and 11:30 a.m. on Sundays -- have been discussed by Premier League clubs. But any changes would not come into effect until the 2019-20 season and, in any case, there is no great appetite to radically alter the package structure for fear of diluting its value.
The money, in the end, is what matters most to all parties. Chelsea received £150.8 million from the Premier League for winning the title last season compared to £99m for finishing first in 2014-15; a huge rise attributable to the fact the new £5.13bn domestic TV deal was a 70-percent increase on the old one.
It is this vast revenue stream that underpins Chelsea's transfer spending, cements the Premier League's status as the most financially attractive league in the world and -- despite the understandable frustration felt by Conte and many other coaches of top clubs -- ensures that schedule compromises are worth making.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.