Wednesday night’s match against Qarabag presents Chelsea with the opportunity to take a notable step. A win in Azerbaijan would guarantee their place in the knockout stages of the Champions League and enhance their chances of topping Group C, which would see them avoid other group winners in the next round. Antonio Conte himself has stated that this is Chelsea’s biggest match of the campaign to date, suggesting that he will be going all out for three points.
But as the Italian has already experienced this season, with such a congested fixture list and multiple prizes in the club’s crosshairs, such thinking is not straightforward. Last season the lack of external distractions allowed the team and the manager to focus on the Premier League with the pleasant diversion of the FA Cup only arriving after Chelsea had already established what proved to be an unassailable lead at the top of the table.
The immediate problem facing Conte is that very soon after his team return from the arduous trip to the Caucasus mountains they will be packing their bags once again to travel north to face Liverpool on Saturday evening. An away game immediately following another is rarely welcomed, especially when the latter is against one of your direct rivals, but it is a situation that has to be faced nonetheless.
In an ideal world, Conte would surely select his best available XI against Qarabag to try and clear the first major obstacle of the campaign as soon as possible. Having missed that opportunity three weeks ago in Rome, he will not want to leave anything to chance on the final group stage matchday. But he will know that a team fatigued by all the travel will find life difficult against a high-energy Liverpool side on Saturday. The one saving grace is that Liverpool themselves play a tough away game against much sterner opposition in Sevilla, even if the journey itself is much shorter and the fact that they will have an extra 24 hours to recover.
There is a fair chance that a degree of rotation will be employed when it comes to Chelsea’s team selection on Tuesday. At present, it appears that Conte sees Andreas Christensen as his first choice as the central centre-back meaning that David Luiz could return in Azerbaijan. The Brazilian’s wealth of big-game experience and constant presence in Conte’s title-winning side ensures that this would not be a gamble. Either Willian or Pedro might also be given a start so that Eden Hazard can be held in reserve for Anfield. One player that seems destined to play both matches, however, is Alvaro Morata, as Michy Batshuayi is set to miss the next few games with a foot injury. Given the Spaniard’s previous admissions that he is physically struggling to play three games back-to-back, that could prove problematic considering Chelsea’s schedule over the coming weeks.
The Blues are due to play every three or four days from now until their away Premier League clash with Arsenal on Jan 3. (They will actually have a FA Cup third round tie on Jan. 6 though Conte will surely use that as an opportunity to rest the majority of his first team). In total, they will play 13 games in just 42 days across three different competitions so squad management and monitoring fitness levels will be just as important as tactical instruction.
With the torrent of fixtures in full flow, Conte will have to keep one eye on future events but without losing sight of his immediate objectives. He may well choose to put all his eggs in the Champions League basket and pick a team with the sole purpose of beating Qarabag. This would leave less pressure on the final group stage meeting with Atletico Madrid, potentially allowing him to rest some of his players ahead of the busy festive period.
Such an approach might compromise Chelsea’s chances at Anfield, though Conte might reflect on last season’s fixture where a defensive counter-attacking display would have seen his team emerge with victory but for a missed penalty from Diego Costa late on. If Chelsea are to play effectively on the break, they would still need some of their core players fit and fresh on Merseyside, though it is generally easier to fit well-drilled squad players into a tight defensive unit than a free-flowing attacking one.
The one thing that seems clear is that the starting XI in Baku will not be the same as the one that takes the field in Liverpool at the weekend. Conte might not be a fan of rotation but the demands on his players at this time of year will effectively force his hand. The manager might see Qarabag as the biggest game of the season so far, though it is certainly possible that he sees the ensuing clash with Liverpool as even bigger. Tuesday’s team selection will be revealing.
Phil is one of ESPN’s Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.