Thibaut Courtois has added to Antonio Conte’s growing list of problems by suffering an ankle injury that is expected to rule the goalkeeper out Chelsea’s trip to Brighton. And midfielder Danny Drinkwater is also struggling to be fit, meaning Conte could be without six senior players as Chelsea look for their first Premier League victory of 2018.
Ross Barkley is set to take his place on the substitutes’ bench, but Conte admits he has been forced to rethink his plans for the Brighton game after losing Alvaro Morata and Pedro to suspension, plus Cesc Fabregas, Gary Cahill and, potentially, Courtois and Drinkwater to injury.
There could not be a worse time for the injuries and suspensions to pile up as Conte attempts to get his team back on course and guide them through an exhausting fixture list in which Chelsea are juggling a “war” to stay in the top four, along with the Carabao Cup and FA Cup, ahead of the Champions League restarting next month.
Even Chelsea’s attempts to boost Conte’s squad in the transfer market were hit by injury, as Andy Carroll’s ankle problem appears to have ruled him out of making a surprise move to Stamford Bridge. That has forced Chelsea to consider a striker who would not even be eligible for the Champions League, Roma’s Edin Dzeko, while interest in Christian Benteke or Peter Crouch could be revisited if the Blues continue to draw blanks on and off the pitch.
There may at least be better news on the horizon in terms of easing the burden on Marcos Alonso, with another Roma player, left-back Emerson Palmieri, keen to join Chelsea. But Conte has clearly grown weary of constant questioning over if and when “the club” will manage to land its targets this month. He needs help, but he is unsure if he will get it. Asked whether or not he is confident Chelsea will sign the players he wants, Conte replied: “Confident’? Confident is a big word. We have to wait. I give my opinion to my club, but, as I said before, the final decision is for the club.
“I have to wait and see what happens in this transfer market. But I repeat: I’m very calm on this aspect, also because I enjoy working with my players in the right way, and I’m very happy with their commitment. I’m happy to work with these players.
“Then, if the club wants to help us, we’re happy. Otherwise we’ll continue in this way, continue to put all ourselves every day in trying to improve as a team and bring satisfaction to our fans.”
Having appeared to be in a straight fight for second place with Manchester United, Chelsea now look the most vulnerable of the clubs currently occupying the top four places. “We have a great motivation, to try to finish the league in the final four,” said Conte. “It won’t be easy. I want to be very clear: we are in January, and it will be very difficult – not only for us, but also the other teams. It will be a big fight, a big war, with five teams (after Manchester City) for only four places.
“We must be optimistic. There are four months to play. Good targets. We are in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup with the possibility of reaching the final, the fourth round of the FA Cup, the Champions League, and we’re fighting for a Champions League place in the league. We must be optimistic and continue to work. Our work must give us the right optimism.”
Pedro cannot face Brighton after being sent off against Norwich City in the FA Cup for two bookable offences, the first of which was for diving. “For Pedro, we must be honest and accept Pedro dived,” said Conte. “I think the player… in this situation, the player is clever, he’s intelligent to understand when you make a mistake. In this case, Pedro understood this mistake.”