By Joe Apu
Burnley FC heads to the Stamford Bridge today with an intent to checkmate reigning English Premier League champions Chelsea on their opening fixture.
Antonio Conte has spent the summer bemoaning the lack of money spent by his team in the summer transfer market, fretting about the lack of players he needs to be successful both in the Premier League and the Champions League and wondering where his sources of offence are.
Now imagine how much more intense those cries would be had Conte not won the Premier League title in his first season with Chelsea.
The reigning title-holders begin their season today in a state of flux as they host Burnley at Stamford Bridge.
Conte’s first season on the London touchline turned into stardust as Chelsea (30-3-5) rocketed from 10th during their shambolic title defense in the 2015-16 season to back atop the table for the second time in three years. The Italian had the luxury of not worrying about any European competition, and he was able to keep his squad fresh as Chelsea were eliminated in the fourth round of the EFL Cup and reached the final of the FA Cup.
This time around, the Champions League beckons.
Conte has been vocal on repeated occasions he wanted to aggressively spend this summer to keep up with the football powers both in England and Europe, the Manchesters, the Barcelonas, the PSGs of the world, yet there has been little splash aside from the £70 million for Alvaro Morata of Real Madrid and the combined £60 million for Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko and AS Roma’s Antonio Rudinger.
“Last season we played many matches but we were able to rest a lot between games,” defender David Luiz said. “This season we will be playing midweek and then again at the weekend, so it’s more about the rest and rotating the team because some players will play in the Premier League, and then others will play in the Champions League, it’s more about the squad.”
The lack of depth was further exposed when midfielder Nemanja Matic, a key player in Conte’s 3-5-2 formation last season that changed the complexion of the Premier League, shockingly left last month to rejoin former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho at Manchester United for £40 million.
“Matic knows very well what I think of him,” Conte told Sky Sports. “The importance for me about this player, who is a really good player, a top player, very important for our team, but sometimes you must accept this crazy transfer market.
“But he is a great loss for us.”
The problem up front was in part exacerbated by Conte, who told Diego Costa his services were no longer wanted at Chelsea shortly after last season ended. Love him, hate him or otherwise given his pantomime villain routine on the pitch, Costa scored a team-high 20 goals in league play to help Chelsea win the title and is now content to bide his time at Cobham waiting out Atletico Madrid’s transfer ban that ends in January.
His absence is a glaring void that needs to be filled, the sooner, the better. And while Morata had 20 goals in all competitions for the Champions League winners, leading the line in London will be a tall order for the 24-year-old, perhaps more so since Conte and Chelsea were gazumped by Mourinho and United for top target Romelu Lukaku.
Some of Chelsea’s growing pains were apparent Sunday when they lost the Community Shield match to Arsenal on penalties at Wembley. Morata was a late substitute, while starting forward Michy Batshauayi failed to impress. Though still an impressive distributor of the ball, Cesc Fabregas lacked pace at times and left N’Golo Kante with far too much clean-up work to do in front of the defence.
Conte has warned, repeatedly, that his current thin side could suffer a “Mourinho repeat” championship hangover without reinforcements. Chelsea are rumoured to be interested in disgruntled Southampton defender Virgil Van Dijk and Leicester City midfielder Danny Drinkwater, who would be reunited with Kante from their 2016 Premier League title days, and the next two-plus weeks leading to the deadline will undoubtedly be full of moves and countermoves to get up to speed.
One holdover who will miss Chelsea’s lid-lifter is attacking midfielder Eden Hazard, who is recovering from an ankle injury. Hazard’s return to form was a key reason Chelsea returned to their winning ways as he finished with 16 goals and five assists in league play.
Amid the drama that surrounds Chelsea enter Burnley (11-7-20), who finished 16th last season and six points clear of the drop in their return to the Premier League. This campaign will mark the first time the Clarets will play top-flight football in consecutive seasons since 1973-76, but like the Blues, they enter this game with a large question mark at the forward position.
After negotiations for a new contract with Andre Gray fell through, Burnley opted to sell the striker, second to Sam Vokes last season with nine goals, to Watford for a reported £18.5 million, which is one of the largest transfer fees in club history. The largest came in July, when central defender Michael Keane was sold to Everton for £25 million.
The two moves have thrust Burnley into the favourites’ spot of being relegated this season, but the outlook is anything but dreary at Turf Moor. In fact, defender Ben Mee thinks Saturday might be the perfect opportunity to catch Chelsea on the back foot.
“You have to play them at some time,” he told The Telegraph. “You might as well play them early, you might catch them by surprise, you never know. Our performances against the big teams were pretty good last year, barring Chelsea away and it’ll be a really good test for us early in the season.”
But the Clarets’ road form, including that 3-0 hiding by Chelsea, leaves much to be desired. Burnley had just one victory and a paltry seven points outside Turf Moor, getting outscored 35-13 and failed to score a goal in the run of play on the road until their eighth match.
Chelsea have won all three Premier League matches at home over Burnley, whose last win at Stamford Bridge came on penalties in the fourth round of the 2009 Carling Cup. The Clarets have not won at Chelsea in league play since 1977 in the Second Division.