Antonio Conte will be well aware that no other manager is as good at top six clashes as Jurgen Klopp. In the big games his teams find a way to dominate, and Conte will have spent the flight back trying to figure out a prevention to that. The lineup and performance needs to be strong to keep pace with the top.
GKTHIBAUT COURTOIS 13, Belgium
Courtois was the man pegged for the Champions League press conference with Conte. He used it to be upfront about his contract still being in the air but added that there is still plenty of time to figure it out. And Chelsea should do what they can to make the big Belgian happy. There is simply not a ready-made elite goalkeeper on the market that would not cost an arm and a leg. The Blues need to stick with Courtois and lock him in for the long haul.
CBCESAR AZPILICUETA 28, Spain
Azpilicueta is vital in Conte’s newly-tweaked system. On paper he is playing as the right center back. In practice he is playing more like the fullback he was under Jose Mourinho. And when a wingback needs to come off, Azpilicueta is now showing he is perfectly capable of playing in the position on either side. The Spaniard’s versatility is a big reason why Conte favors him so much and why the defender will continue to have a role for many years to come.
CBANDREAS CHRISTENSEN 27, Denmark
David Luiz finally got recalled, and played the role he was tasked with mostly perfectly. He still pulled himself out of position to make a tackle (which he then failed to do), but for the most part he stayed back and allowed Azpilicueta to push up. But Christensen has been so picture perfect to Conte’s instructions that there is no way Luiz starts against Liverpool. It was only a matter of time, but the Dane has tipped the Brazilian as the go-to starter.
CBGARY CAHILL 24, England
For once the captain rested in the Champions League as opposed to for the Champion’s League. Antonio Rudiger has been getting steadily better but he has yet to overtake Cahill in the way Christensen did Luiz. Again, it is only a matter of time, but Cahill’s entire Chelsea career has been like that. He has fought tooth and nail to keep starting and it would take a quick fall in fortunes to change that.
WBDAVIDE ZAPPACOSTA 21, Italy
There are murmurs in some corners about how Zappacosta has not been great and how Victor Moses will be starting over him when he returns. That is ridiculous. It is hard to tell what some expect from the wing-backs, but they always seem to carry loftier expectations than other players. Zappacosta has been excellent in the same way Moses was at the start of last season. But Moses faded and now Zappacosta reigns supreme (especially with Moses still out).
CMN’GOLO KANTE 7, France
Kante’s role is changing once more. He is still more or less a box-to-box midfielder, but the way he operates is not the same as it was. Now Kante drops deep to be the connection between midfield and defense while still getting forward as a re-cycle option. He is not the first to press or the tip of the diamond like he was becoming before. This shows Conte has become aware of personnel changes and put each into a role that allows them to flourish the most.
CMCESC FABREGAS 4, Spain
At this point, Danny Drinkwater is fit. He is playing regularly. But he is either a) not up to Conte’s standards yet, or b) simply not what was expected. Either way, Fabregas started midweek in a game that screamed Drinkwater. The Englishman may find his time later, but Fabregas is in form and will be given a go once more. Conte will be weary of pushing the maestro too hard and will likely rest him sometime in the next week for Drinkwater.
CMTIEMOUE BAKAYOKO 14, France
Bakayoko rested against Qarabag, hopefully to work on his shooting. He has taken on Kante’s old role of first to press and a high flying midfield option. It is still astounding to see the space he can find in the box. It is almost Frank Lampard-esque. If he could simply figure out how to finish then it would take the burden off of Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata to score every match. Then Chelsea would have themselves a new spine for the next decade.
WBMARCOS ALONSO 3, Spain
Alonso had a small rest when he was subbed off early (by Conte standards) against Qarabag. That is good because Kenedy is injured, leaving no natural backups available without having to tap into another position’s depth. Alonso has slowly improved as the season has progressed but in a different way to last season. Now he is serving as a re-cycle option as opposed to a crossing one, but there is no reason not to start him and see what he can offer.
STALVARO MORATA 9, Spain
When Chelsea bought Fernando Torres, the player they were trying to buy was Alvaro Morata. Torres did much better than is remembered, but there was still a large gulf between expectations and reality. Morata is filling that hole while forming a deadly tandem with Hazard. It will be hard for Morata to pull it off, but the Golden Boot is still within reach if he continues to score at the rate he is currently producing.
STEDEN HAZARD 10, Belgium
Hazard loves his new role. Some call it an attacking mid, others a striker role. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Hazard does not defend like a midfielder, but he connects the midfield to Morata and also uses Morata as a distraction to 1-2. He is occasionally a shadow striker, occasionally the number 10 but always flourishing in the role. It takes the organization off of him a bit and allows him to be free, and he is playing some awesome stuff as a result.