Antonio Conte believes Chelsea’s game against Qarabag on Wednesday is our biggest of the season so far, as a win will guarantee our progress to the knockout stage of the Champions League.
The Blues travel to Azerbaijan for the first time, with the fixture kicking off at 5pm UK time. This will be the first of 12 matches between now and the end of the year and Conte is eager to see his side confirm a place in the round of 16 at the earliest opportunity.
However, he is aware that Qarabag have shown a great deal more in their last three Champions League fixtures than they did when we beat them 6-0 at the Bridge in September, having drawn home and away against Atletico Madrid after a narrow 2-1 defeat against Roma.
‘We have to play the most important game of the season from the start until now,’ said the first-team coach. ‘If we are able to win against Qarabag, we can go through to the next round of the Champions League and this is very important because this period from now until January is very busy, so it is very important to win the game.
‘For sure it won’t be easy because in the last two games they drew twice against Atletico Madrid, and before that they lost the game but Roma were struggling a lot to win against them so it is very important to be focused, to work and to try to win the game.’
The Blues’ last fixture in the competition ended in a 3-0 defeat against Roma, but we have responded superbly, with Saturday’s 4-0 win at West Brom following a 1-0 victory over Manchester United.
Conte knows both he and his players have to learn from our defeat in the Italian capital, but feels recent results – not to mention the form of key players – indicate we are returning to our best.
‘I must be honest, these players always show great desire and will to fight in every game,’ he explained. ‘Against Roma, together we didn’t show this – me first. I always put myself before the players and I always take the responsibility.
‘In Rome we didn’t deserve to finish the first half 2-0 down, but the second half was negative because we didn’t show the desire to come back to try to draw it or win.
‘But I think this season, we faced a lot of problems from the start and now we are trying to solve these problems, to recall players, to find the right form for players like, for example, Eden and it is the same for Morata who is playing his first season in England.
‘Then Kante is recovering good form and we know very well the importance of these players for us. We had a lot of problems and also we are trying to change something in the tactical aspect and to find different solutions, because when you are conceding many goals, it means you have to find a new balance.’
Looking at our impressive display at the Hawthorns on Saturday, Conte praised two of our goalscorers, as well as the invention of Cesc Fabregas.
‘I think to see Eden in this form is very important for me. At West Brom, Eden and Morata showed a great link, but also with the ball we have another player who deserves great credit, Cesc Fabregas.
‘This season, we are changing something compared to last season to find a new balance and solidity, to have a good balance when we are attacking and when we are defending. I hope we continue to improve – this was a good win for us, we finished with a clean sheet and we have to continue with this work.’
In the win at West Brom we kept a third consecutive clean sheet in the Premier League, with Andreas Christensen once again at the heart of our defence having impressed in the win over Manchester United. However, Conte was keen to stress the important role every member of our squad will play in the coming weeks.
‘In every game I have to try to make the best decision for the team and I think in this situation, Christensen deserves to play,’ said the Italian.
‘Christensen is playing very well, but we have to play a lot of games – we play every three days – and I need all the players.’