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Conte’s Chelsea return to Champions League with statement victory

Photo credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side got off to an excellent start in their opening Group Stage fixture of the Champions League last night against minnows Qarabağ at Stamford Bridge, putting six past the Azerbaijan side.

The 2012 Champions of Europe got off to a roaring start in their return to UEFA Champions League action last night, running through their opponents Qarabag with ease despite several key players being rested ahead of the London Derby match with Arsenal this Sunday.

The likes of David Luiz and Alvaro Morata were spelled a breather with Pedro, Kante and Azpilicueta all taken off midway the second half to give the likes of Rudiger, Bakayoko and the returning Eden Hazard minutes on the pitch.

Manager Antonio Conte was clearly delighted with the result in his post match interview as his team made it four wins in a row in all competitions after a shock opening defeat to Burnley in the Premier League:

“It was a good start, a perfect start for us. To play the first game in the Champions League, to win with a good result, to score many goals and finish the game with a clean sheet – I saw a lot of positive things tonight.”

One of the key performers on the night and making his Chelsea debut and his Champions League debut was Italian International Davide Zappacosta who moved to London on deadline day for a fee of 28 million euros + bonuses.

The wing-back was excellent on his first start for the club, scoring one of the best goals you’ll see all tournament, although he claimed in his post match interview it was a cross. Also, the former Torino defender added an assist towards the end of the game, capping off an otherwise perfect debut game in the tournament for his new club.

As the Chelsea faithful, including myself, sang his name, it was clear to all the fans they enjoyed what they saw of their new signing on his full debut.

“He played a really good game,” said Conte. “Now he has to continue to work to improve. For sure, he knew very well my style of football and my idea of football. For this reason, I decided to start with him. He was prepared to play. He played very well.”

Chelsea’s Italian head coach Antonio Conte gestures during the UEFA Champions League Group C football match between Chelsea and Qarabag at Stamford Bridge in London on September 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL (Photo credit should read BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Conte continued:

“For him it was his first appearance at Stamford Bridge. It’s not easy to totally change your sporting life in one week, but the answer was very good. He has said he wanted to cross, but he scored and it’s important for us. I am very pleased with the performance. Now we have to continue in this way with him and the other players. I had a positive answer from my players tonight.”

Although it’s too early to say, it’s quite possible we could see Zappacosta make that wing-back position his own ahead of Victor Moses in the coming weeks. If Conte continues to see performances like that, especially when Chelsea face a grueling schedule of games with five tough fixtures over the next 17 days (Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and Manchester City all before the end of the month), there will be plenty of opportunities to stake his claim for a starting position.

Much has been made of Conte’s record in Europe’s elite competition after failing to make the knockout stages the last time he coached a club side in the Champions League with Juventus. Failing to pick up maximum points over Copenhagen and Galatasaray in what was considered to be a straightforward progress to the next round raised questions about the Italian’s mentality to motivate his players on the biggest stage. Max Allegri has undoubtedly accomplished more success with his current team, taking them to two Champions League Finals in the last three years and unlocking the Bianconeri’s true potential. Yet, Conte has likely already put his past struggles behind him, and is thinking about where he can redeem himself with the Blues in Europe moving forward.

The next three games will undoubtedly be Chelsea’s biggest test under Conte with a trip to Madrid to face Simeone’s Atletico before back to back games against a familiar team, AS Roma. If Chelsea get the right results against these sides and progress to the next round, no doubt Conte’s side has the potential to go to the latter stages of the competition and even go on to win the Champions League – and eliminate those doubts that many Italian fans have of him in this tournament.

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