Conte hails a year to remember for Chelsea

London (AFP) – Chelsea manager Antonio Conte reflected on a memorable 2017 as the Premier League champions rounded off the year with a 5-0 demolition of Stoke City.

While Conte’s side are lagging well behind leaders Manchester City in this season’s title race, the Italian is still delighted with the way the last 12 months played out in west London.

The Blues won the title in May and also reached the FA Cup final in a glorious first season at Chelsea for the former Italy coach.

Even if a successful title defence is unlikely, there is still silverware up for grabs in three other competitions in the second half of the season.

“To finish this year in this way is great for me, great for the players, great for the club and our fans,” Conte said. 

“This year was a fantastic year because to win the title in England is not easy. 

“To be able to do this at your first try, I will remember this year in my mind forever.

“And for next year, we are still in four competitions. We have a lot of great games to face.”

Chelsea’s squad is stocked so heavily with talent that the absences of Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Andreas Christensen in the interests of squad rotation went almost unnoticed against hapless Stoke on Saturday.

In addition, Conte was able to take off Victor Moses, N’Golo Kante and Alvaro Morata, all by the 71st minute, to rest their legs ahead of the visit to Arsenal on Wednesday.

“I am very happy because I made some rotation changes today and when you have this type of response from your players you must be pleased,” Conte said.

“Manchester City have created a big gap between them and the other teams, but we have to put all of ourselves into every game and to put a bit of pressure on teams above us.

“I don’t think you can play relaxed in this type of game in England, but I was very pleased to finish the game with another clean sheet.

“We are showing good solidity. If you compare this season with last season, we have conceded less goals. We’ve scored less, but we’ve conceded less, too.”

– Hughes gamble –

Meanwhile, Stoke manager Mark Hughes admitted that the wisdom of his decision to play what amounted to a reserve side will only emerge in Monday’s New Year’s Day fixture against Newcastle United.

Hughes watched on as his makeshift back four were pulled this way and that as Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater and Pedro put Chelsea 3-0 ahead after just 23 minutes.

The scoring was completed by a second-half penalty from Willian and an individual effort by Davide Zappacosta, but by then Hughes’ thoughts had already turned to the crucial game against fellow strugglers Newcastle.

“I made decisions that I feel will help us, certainly with the game on Monday. I rested a number of players who have been carrying slight knocks so that they will be fresh and ready to go on Monday,” Hughes said.

“We’ve got Joe Allen available, (Xherdan) Shaqiri available, (Eric Maxim) Choupo-Moting, Kurt Zouma as well. 

“We might have Erik Pieters as well so the landscape of Monday’s game changes completely for us hopefully.

“The decisions weren’t easy, but they were decisions I was prepared to make. If we can get the win we hope we will get against Newcastle, then this Christmas period will have been a good return.

“We will have had two wins, a draw and a defeat to Chelsea. On that basis it would be a good return, so Monday becomes a big game for us.”

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