KEEP THE BLUE FLAG FLYING
Conte salutes his players and backs them to battle all the way for a top-four place
ANTONIO CONTE believes Chelsea still have plenty to play for despite the gap between them and Manchester City.
The title they won last season already looks out of reach and on its way to the Etihad.
But Conte reckons the fierce battle behind City for the Champions League places should keep his players on their toes.
Chelsea strengthened their position in the top four with this eventually routine win over Brighton. Just like against Everton, the Blues totted up another 25 attempts on goal.
But this time they got the goals their dominance deserved, from Alvaro Morata and Marcos Alonso, who were teed up by their fellow Spaniards Cesar Azpilicueta and Cesc Fabregas.
After second-placed Manchester United dropped two more points against Burnley, Chelsea are now just one behind in third – although 13 behind City.
Conte (above) said: “In this league there is a great motivation for all. To try to stay there and fight until the end, I don’t know if we will win the title. It depends upon Manchester City. Otherwise, Chelsea, United, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool, we fight for a place in the Champions League next season.
“There are four places for six top teams. Last season Manchester United and Arsenal finished fifth and sixth, no? There is this great motivation for me, for the players and we want to try and improve.
“There are many competitions. It’s important to face every competition and be very proud to play every game.”
There seemed to be a collective Christmas Day hangover affecting everyone inside Stamford Bridge in the first half.
Chelsea were flat, Brighton offered little, the crowd were subdued and even Conte was not his usually animated self. His side’s struggles to break down Brighton were summed up when Fabregas and Antonio Rudiger resorted to hopeful potshots from distance. In fact, the biggest cheer of the day came at half-time when the score from Old Trafford was read out, United were 2-0 down against Burnley and former Brighton striker Ashley Barnes was among the scorers. But a minute after the restart the home fans had a goal to celebrate. Conte’s trusted combination of defender Azpilicueta and striker Morata linked up for the sixth time this season when the latter headed in his 10th league goal of the season from the former’s cross.
“Yeah, but he has to score also,” Conte joked about Azpilicueta.
“There is this great link between him and Alvaro. I hope it continues in this way because we need his assists and Morata to score.
“Morata has to pay not one dinner but more dinners for Azpi. And if they invite me, I want to go.”
Immediately Brighton’s game plan was out of the window and the game opened up.
Eden Hazard was inches away from bending in a second, before Mat Ryan denied Alonso twice in quick succession.
The first time was a flying save from Alonso’s free-kick before he alertly tipped over the Spaniard’s flick header from the resulting corner.
But Brighton failed to heed the warning, Fabregas and Alonso worked the same routine from a corner on the other flank and this time the Chelsea wing-back found the far corner to wrap up the points.
CHELSEA GIRL Bridget the Lioness added to the festive cheer at the Blues