KEEP THE BLUE FLAG FLY­ING

Conte salutes his play­ers and backs them to bat­tle all the way for a top-four place

Daily Mirror - - FOOTBALL - BY ADRIAN KAJUMBA

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

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