LONDON/BRIGHTON: Antonio Conte summed up a frustrating close season at Stamford Bridge when he cast doubt on Chelsea’s ability to defend the Premier League title unless the champions find a quick solution to their transfer woes.
Crowned kings of England just three months ago, Conte’s side open their campaign at home to Burnley on Saturday arguably in worse shape than when they paraded the Premier League trophy in front of their jubilant fans in May.
Since then, Serbia midfielder Nemanja Matic has been sold to Manchester United and Spain striker Diego Costa has been told he has no future at the club following his text message feud with Conte.
John Terry’s influence in the dressing room has gone following the veteran defender’s move to second-tier Aston Villa, while the squad has been further depleted by the loss of a number of fringe players including Nathan Ake and Kurt Zouma.
In their place have come Real Madrid striker Alvaro Morata, Roma defender Antonio Rudiger and Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko.
But Conte, angered by Chelsea’s failure to land top targets Romelu Lukaku and Alex Sandro, has made it clear he expected more.
Defeat to Arsenal on penalties in last weekend’s Community Shield means nothing when it comes to the league campaign, but it did little to ease the sense that, while their main rivals are all stronger, Chelsea are in danger of being left behind.
Conte has already spoke of the need to avoid a “Mourinho season”, a reference to the dismal campaign under the former manager that followed Chelsea’s last title triumph in 2015.
“Yes, [it will be] very hard [to defend the title]. This league is not easy,” he said. “You have to fight against other teams. This league is different to other countries, where you’ll find two teams to fight; here, you have six teams which are very strong. You must be prepared to fight very hard.”
It doesn’t help Conte’s mood that France international Bakayoko is currently out with a knee injury following Matic’s exit.
“Bakayoko is a good signing for us. He is very young. My idea was to give Bakayoko the right time to adapt in this league behind Matic,” said Conte. “But now after the sale of Matic, we need to try to accelerate this process for Bakayoko after his injury. We have Cesc Fabregas and we are trying to find another midfielder. Because now we have only three midfielders and we need another midfielder.”
Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Leicester’s Danny Drinkwater figure on Conte’s midfield wanted list, with the manager also targeting reinforcements in defence and attack.
Meanwhile, Burnley manager Sean Dyche admits he will have to try to keep the club in the Premier League on a tight budget once again.
The Clarets have just sold Andre Gray to Watford for £18 million to rob Dyche of his key striker on the eve of the new campaign.
Money no object for City, but Guardiola must deliver
Fortified by Manchester City’s £200 million overhaul, Pep Guardiola is under pressure to ensure his second season in the Premier League is far more successful than his torrid first.
Guardiola had a troubled debut campaign at Eastlands as the Spaniard failing to win a trophy for the first time in his storied managerial career.
Third-placed City finished 15 points behind Premier League champions Chelsea, crashed out of the Champions League against Monaco and failed to reach either of the domestic cup finals.
Guardiola has admitted such a lacklustre performance would have seen him sacked at his previous clubs Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
However, City, who start their Premier League campaign at promoted Brighton on Saturday, always intended to give Guardiola time to reload and a pre-season spree has put him in position to get it right this time.
“We feel ready because we’ve been at a good level but we have nothing to show for it at the moment,” said City captain Vincent Kompany. “Keep doing what we’ve done in the last three games and it should be exciting.”