Chelsea: Where Antonio Conte’s Side Can Slip up in Premier League Title Race

Antonio Conte
Antonio Conte at White Hart Lane, London, January 4. Conte's team is eight points clear at the top of the Premier League table. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty

When Antonio Conte settled into his chair in the bowels of the Stamford Bridge press room on Sunday, the Italian felt the warm comfort of a points cushion.

He had just watched his Chelsea side overcome a disciplined, determined Hull, battling for its Premier League status over the next five months, to go eight points clear at the top of the table. Sixteen games remain of the season, and the feeling around west London is that it’s now Chelsea’s title to lose.

Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City, part of the chasing pack at the top of the Premier League, barely have Conte’s men in their sights. With all three dropping points over the weekend, and only Arsenal winning, the Chelsea manager spoke of the pressure his team had to “exploit” that opportunity.

So, here, Newsweek looks at where Chelsea could slip up in the second half of the campaign:

Controversial Costa’s uncertain future

Conte is keen for speculation surrounding Diego Costa’s future to disappear. The Spanish striker is believed to have been involved in a bust-up with Chelsea coaching staff last week, followed by reports of a bid from the Chinese Super League.

Costa did not travel with the team to Leicester, with the official line from the club saying that his absence was due to a back injury.

On Sunday, however, the 28-year-old was back in the starting lineup and put the hosts ahead with his 15th goal of the season. But Costa is far from predictable.

Should the Spaniard find himself embroiled in another training ground fracas, and Conte fails to find a remedy, Chelsea will struggle to replace his impact. Chelsea’s top scorer with 15 goals, Costa has struck five winners this season for the club. And with Conte unconvinced about Michy Batshuayi’s capability in the Premier League, he would be hard to replace.

Still to face majority of chasing pack

The only defeats Chelsea has suffered this season have come against Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool, the three clubs closest to Conte’s team in the table.

Bar Spurs, those pre-dated the change of formation to 3-4-3, which sparked a 13-match winning run in the Premier League.

When Chelsea returns to Premier League action on January 31—it faces Brentford in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday—Conte’s team will travel to Anfield to play Liverpool. Four days later, Arsenal will be the visitor to Stamford Bridge.

Win those and Chelsea will be closing in on reclaiming the Premier League title, but dropped points, especially to second place Arsenal, will reignite the title race, with Chelsea facing both Manchester clubs in April.

Injuries to key players

Up until now, Chelsea has been fortunate with injuries so far this season.

Kurt Zouma has spent much of Conte’s time at Stamford Bridge recovering from injury, while John Terry, not a first choice under the Italian, spent a period out of action with a muscle strain. Willian briefly left the club on compassionate leave, also.

But Conte, more often than not, has been able to pick his key players, his match-winners. Chelsea survived without Costa at the King Power Stadium, but would miss his prolificity in front of goal if he were sidelined for a substantial period of time.

N’Golo Kante, Chelsea’s industrious midfielder who helped guide Leicester City to the title last season and looks to be doing the same at Stamford Bridge, would leave a gaping hole. A replacement? Nathaniel Chalobah, a Chelsea youngster who Conte is fond of but not comparable to Kane.

The same could be said for Eden Hazard, David Luiz and Marcos Alonso. The slick Chelsea machine is powering to the Premier League title but has not yet suffered any serious injuries.