Chelsea will conclude a “crucial week” in the context of their season’s ambitions at Everton on Sunday with Antonio Conte confident his team has the fortitude to cope with the pressures of the run-in as they target the 12 points from their final five games that will guarantee them the Premier League title.
They endured two fruitless trips to Goodison Park last season, in the league under José Mourinho and FA Cup with Guus Hiddink, and were uncharacteristically off-colour in their last away fixture, an untimely defeat at Manchester United a fortnight ago. Yet Conte has been hugely encouraged by his players’ response to that loss at Old Trafford, with second-placed Tottenham Hotspur beaten in the FA Cup semi-final and Southampton subsequently overcome in midweek.
A victory on Merseyside would re-establish a seven-point lead at the top for a few hours at least, transferring the pressure back on to Spurs for their eagerly anticipated north London derby. “This game is another step, another very important step,” says Conte, who is expected to recall Pedro in place of Cesc Fàbregas. “When you arrive at this moment at the end of the season, every single game is a test, a psychological test. Every game is very important, every single game. An easy game on paper becomes a tough game, which is why we have to go step by step. It’s important I send the right message to my players and that they think the same way as me. One game at a time.
“I always thought this week would be very important for us. For sure, after the United defeat, it wasn’t easy to face this type of moment. Above all because after the United loss we saw the lead was only four points and then we had to play a semi-final against Tottenham, our closest opponents in the league. After that game we had another match two and a half days later against Southampton, a team who had rested up for 10 days. So that was a good test for us, of our mental condition. So I considered this week crucial, both in terms of our FA Cup challenge and also for the league.
“The answer has been very good from my players so far but this crucial week is not over yet. We have to focus and prepare for the Everton game in the right way. I always knew we would have to fight until the end in this league. I looked at our fixtures and I saw the difficulty of the games we had to face. For this reason, even when we were 13 points or 10 points ahead, I said we’d have to fight until the end to win the title. I’m sure that whoever does end up winning the title will only do so by one or two points, not a lot of points.”
Conte has spoken of the progress players such as Eden Hazard have made this season in terms of coping with the pressure but he will lean on the side’s seasoned campaigners in what remains of the run‑in to see his team over the line.
Chelsea have 11 players who have played significant roles in claiming the Premier League title in the past – 10 from their last triumph in 2015 and N’Golo Kanté from Leicester – with the manager particularly encouraged by the sight of Diego Costa ending a seven-game scoring drought in midweek.
The game at Goodison Park inevitably draws the focus towards Costa and Romelu Lukaku, whom Chelsea may seek to re-sign should the Spain forward, as anticipated, depart for the Chinese Super League this summer. Lukaku is the top flight’s leading scorer this season, in his most prolific spell since departing Stamford Bridge for around £28m in 2014, but has opted against signing a new contract and is thought to favour a return to west London.
Yet, while Chelsea will make clear their interest this summer, Conte’s priority is coaxing more from Costa after his double against Southampton. “I hope it will be Diego who decides this match because that means we win the game,” he says. “We are talking about two great strikers. But you know that Diego, for me, is the best striker in the world. I hope he will be decisive in this game and from now on until the end of the season.
“In this part of the season, for sure, it’s very important to have players with good personality, with good strong characters, because you must always be ready to face a different situation.
“Before, during and after the games. It’s important to have strong players with strong characters but I think, in the team, we have a lot of warriors. I work every day to bring them to be warriors. I think it’s great to have talent but I like a lot when you are a warrior during the game and, above all, if players with talent show they work hard during a match.”