Antonio Conte's lack of faith in Michy Batshuayi not helping Chelsea
The hamstring injury suffered by Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata in the 1-0 loss against Manchester City has given manager Antonio Conte a major headache.
So far this season, Morata has netted six times in seven Premier League games -- a tally that equates to 50 percent of the Blues' goals. The 24-year old Spain international, Chelsea's record signing at £58 million plus add-ons, has already proven his worth -- a fact that makes his absence all the more frustrating.
For the forthcoming game with Crystal Palace, and more besides quite possibly, Conte now has a decision to make. Play "reserve" centre-forward Michy Batshuayi in a like-for-like swap, or deploy Eden Hazard as a False No.9.
History suggests the Italian is likely to plump for the latter option, indeed Hazard it was who, ineffectively it has to be said, was sent up front by Conte when Morata limped from the field in the 35th minute to be replaced by the equally ineffective Willian last Saturday. Batshuayi was kept on the bench until late on in the game when he entered the fray as a substitute for Tiemoue Bakayko. There was to be no repeat of the heroics from the striker who had netted a last-gasp winner for Chelsea away to Atletico Madrid a few days previously.
Criticism for Batshuayi's failure to make an impact in the City game would be harsh. At the highest level, football is as much about confidence as it is about ability. Had Conte directly replaced the stricken Morata with Batshuayi, it would have been a morale-booster as much as anything for the striker who must be wondering if we will ever get a break at Chelsea.
During the recent international break, Belgium international coach Roberto Martinez, shorn of the services of prolific Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku, had no hesitation in starting Batshuayi in a World Cup qualifier away to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Batshuayi repaid the faith Martinez placed in him by playing the full 90 minutes and scoring for the Red Devils in a 4-3 win. Incidentally, club teammate Hazard also played the full game for Belgium in his customary No. 10 role.
Since joining Chelsea from Marseille for £33m in July 2016, a deal which at that time made him the Blues' second most expensive signing ever after Fernando Torres, Batshuayi has somewhat bizarrely become a wallflower at Stamford Bridge. Underused by Conte to such an extent that there is a growing sense among supporters that for some reason the Italian doesn't trust him, Batshuayi has actually scored some important goals for Chelsea. The recent winner against Atleti being a prime example, there was also the goal that sealed the Premier League title last season at West Brom -- and just to prove a point, the Belgian scored a hat trick in last month's 5-1 League Cup demolition of Nottingham Forest.
After the City defeat, Batshuayi claimed that Conte is working to improve him tactically and had congratulated him for his commitment, which gave the impression the Chelsea manager is not excluding him from his plans in the way he did with Diego Costa. Nevertheless it means little when the player constantly finds himself clicking his heels on the bench. It may be that Conte's reluctance to send Batshuayi on as a direct replacement for Morata against City had more to do with labouring a point to the Chelsea board about his shortage of options up front given their failure to sign Swansea striker Fernando Llorente during the summer transfer window. Had the Blues signed the Spaniard it may have paved the way for a loan move for Batshuayi but the deal fell through and Llorente opted to join Tottenham and play second-fiddle to Harry Kane.
If Conte does afford a starting berth to Batshuayi against Palace, it's imperative the striker seizes the opportunity. To date this year, no Premier League player has scored more goals from the bench in all competitions than the four Batshuayi has to his name. A goal-scoring performance at Selhurst Park will not only do wonders for his confidence, but it will prove that he is so much more than just an impact substitute.
Batshuayi starting for Chelsea may not be a long-term thing given the stature and form of Morata, but in the here and now he could make a telling contribution in the Blues' bid to stay in touch in the title race. If Conte is playing mind games with the Stamford Bridge board, now's the time to stop. The transfer window will be open again in January, but it's results now that matter.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco