Antonio Conte has admitted Chelsea face a daunting challenge if they are to claw back the nine-point deficit to leaders Manchester City and successfully defend their Premier League title.
A 1-0 victory at Bournemouth on Saturday ensured Conte’s men didn’t lose more ground to Pep Guardiola’s side and the head coach insisted the win provided a welcome boost to the London club’s confidence ahead of the midweek trip to face AS Roma in the Champions League.
But the Italian refused to look too far into the future and warned of the difficulties that lie ahead for Chelsea in merely attempting to secure their position in the top four of the Premier League before setting their sights any higher.
“At this moment we must be realistic by going game by game,” said Conte. “We have 19 points and we deserve to have 19 points. We are first in our group in the Champions League.
“We went into the next round of the Carabao (League) Cup after going out in the second round last season. I’m very happy for this group. There are players who are very honest, players who want to fight until the end for something important.”
As for remaining in the top four, Conte said: “Are we able to do this? I don’t know. But we will try to stay there. I know very well that, in England in this league, there are six top teams, very strong.
“Four go into the Champions League. Two have to stay out and play Europa League. Last season we saw this. It was very, very, very difficult.”
Eden Hazard’s 51st-minute goal settled the outcome of a game at Dean Court that Chelsea should have taken control of in the first half.
“I must be pleased for this game, for the performance,” said Conte. “For a big part of the game we played very well, with maturity and good possession, and tried to create and find the right ball between the lines, or to switch the play.
“We could have been more clinical in the first half. In this type of game, you must be able to kill the game. But I think, tonight, we deserved to win.
“A good win for our confidence, a good win before another tough game against Roma in the Champions League. I think I saw a lot of positive things tonight.”
– Kante hope –
N’Golo Kante was again missing but Conte was hopeful the midfielder would return for the Champions League tie at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
“I hope, I hope,” he said. “He could be ready. But you know very well the importance of this player. I want to be sure he is ready.
“Honestly, I hope to have him in this game. But I’d prefer not to take a risk. If he’s ready, he plays.”
Defeat left Bournemouth in the bottom three and manager Eddie Howe admitted the south coast club must find a way to be more creative in their play.
“We have to work out why we’ve gone from a free-scoring team to a side who struggle to create clear-cut chances. I have to work it out. I have to find the right formula,” he said.
“We are concerned with our league position, of course we are. We have a key run of games coming up next month, particularly when you look at the games in December.”