LONDON: 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.
And when asked this week whether it would difficult to hold onto their crown without more signings, he said: “Yes very hard. For sure. This league is not easy. 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,” Conte said.
“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.
Gray had a year left on his contract, but Burnley were not prepared to break their pay structure to meet the 26-year-old’s wage demands.
Some of Burnley’s relegation rivals have heavily invested on new players, with Dyche working under more restrained parameters.
“Andre had a year left on the contract, it is a normal football business. Nobody wants to lose their best players,” Dyche said.
“We are not the market leaders financially so it’s tough. How far do you go with what they are asking for? It’s a reality of where the club is at.” -- AFP