Chelsea's squad crisis is already threatening to derail title defence
LONDON -- At Cobham on Friday, Antonio Conte was asked whether the Premier League would have to wait until Eden Hazard and Tiemoue Bakayoko returned to full fitness to see the real Chelsea. "I hope and want to see the real Chelsea tomorrow," he replied. "Now the season is starting and we must be ready, even with many players missing."
The real Chelsea took 45 minutes to appear at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, but the Premier League doesn't wait for any team, champions or not. Burnley's second away win in two years -- and particularly the manner in which it played out -- has put Conte's men in a significant hole as they head into a run of fixtures that would test them at the best of times.
These, quite clearly, are not the best of times.
Conte angrily batted away the suggestion that his youthful squad selection -- 20-year-old Jeremie Boga making his Premier League debut and a bench including six outfielders with an average age of just under 21 -- was a message to the Chelsea board about the need for new signings, and in reality he could have done little else. The only experienced players available and omitted from the 18-man squad were third-choice goalkeeper Eduardo, the exiled Diego Costa and Loic Remy, who is waiting to be sold.
Hazard and Bakayoko do not yet have return dates and Pedro is battling to overcome an ankle knock in time to face Tottenham at Wembley next Sunday. Victor Moses returns from suspension but Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas are out after seeing red against Burnley. As things stand, Conte will have to pick one of the most makeshift teams of his tenure, backed up largely by players that Danny Rose would have to Google.
There is no message, only the reality. Chelsea's hierarchy are well aware of the current squad situation and the expectation is that three or four more players will arrive before the close of the transfer window. Danny Drinkwater, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley have all been linked, while Virgil van Dijk remains of interest. It would be a surprise if any arrived quickly enough to alleviate the current crisis of numbers, though.
Less clear is how things were allowed to come to this. Nemanja Matic and Nathaniel Chalobah may have been considered ultimately expendable, but the presence of either would have been a godsend for Conte against Spurs. The likeliest solution now is David Luiz holding the midfield fort alongside N'Golo Kante, leaving an unfamiliar back three of Cesar Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger to deal with Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
Beyond Spurs lie matches against Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City before the start of October. Caution is always advisable when judging a team on the opening day of the season, but it's not hard to envision Chelsea falling significantly off the pace of the challengers to their Premier League crown before injuries and suspensions allow them to approach anything like full strength.
Of course, that is a worst-case scenario. If Chelsea approach the coming weeks with the same defiance and determination that brought them startlingly close to snatching a draw with nine men in the second half, and Alvaro Morata produces more of the form that yielded a goal and an assist in 31 impressive minutes as a substitute, the picture in the autumn could end up considerably rosier.
Conte, always wary of plunging new signings straight into his team, is particularly exacting of his strikers, placing detailed tactical demands of the runs they should make and positions they should take up during moves rehearsed time and again at Cobham. Costa was often praised last season not as Chelsea's top scorer and biggest goal threat, but as the "point of reference" for the entire attack.
That said, Morata's performance after coming on for the anonymous Michy Batshuayi made Conte's approach in leaving him on the bench feel like unnecessary caution. The Spaniard immediately adapted to the frenetic pace and physicality of a competitive Premier League match and, with his slick link-up play and intelligent runs, posed a threat Chelsea could not muster before his arrival. He has surely done enough to start against Tottenham, either alongside Batshuayi or instead of him.
In defence, Rudiger and Christensen showed promising signs against Burnley; the former performing with passion and assurance across several positions over the 90 minutes, the latter displaying physicality and technique against the bruising Sam Vokes before having an impressive goal ruled out for offside at the other end. Conte may not have many new faces, but the ones that have arrived do at least look capable of contributing right away.
Conte, pressed in his post-match news conference on how Chelsea can escape their narrative of summer frustration and misfortune, returned to his trusted mantra. "Now we have to work," he insisted. "We must know this. There is only this way for me and my players." They know the other way from here all too well at Stamford Bridge, and there is no desire to repeat it.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.