Following the worst-ever defence of a title in Premiership history, a club of Chelsea’s means could be tempted to spend heavily during the off-season. Given the class of the existing squad available to new boss Antonio Conte, however, there may be less of that than expected.
The former Azzurri coach has seen only one new name added to the team roster, that of Michy Batshuayi. The young striker’s Belgium countrymen Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel are both reported targets to strengthen a midfield that could be losing a key player.
Here’s our prediction for the starting lineup of Conte’s first match in charge.
Goalkeeper: Asmir Begovic
With Thibaut Courtois’ thus far unresolved falling out with goalkeeping coach Christophe Lollichon, it’s possible Conte may want to start the season with an undistracted number one. Begovic was a 12m euro signing from Stoke City before the start of the 2015/16 season and may get the nod over the Belgium international in what would be a big call for Conte to make early on.
Left-back: Cesar Azpilicueta
Defensively, the Spaniard was one of the Premier League’s best full-backs last season. Rumoured target Bruno Prez offers more going forward, but PSG are said to be leading the chase for the the Torino player’s signature.
Centre-back: Kurt Zouma
A torn ACL meant that the Frenchman missed a large portion of last season. His recovery time was significantly shorter than the predicted six months and the giant 21-year-old will be keen to continue what promises to be a long career in west London.
Centre-back: Gary Cahill
John Stones’ reported £50m price tag and the fact that signing the Everton starlet would lead to having two centre-backs aged 21 means that Conte is likely to stick to tried, tested and experienced.
Right-back: Branislav Ivanovic
Chelsea’s long-serving full-back may have had a very poor start to the 2015/16 season, but a move to centre-back due to Zouma’s injury saw the Serbian regain some form. However, is likely to be shifted to a full-back role once more.
Attacking midfielder: Cesc Fabregas
A virtual certainty in the Chelsea starting line-up. The experienced Spaniard would stroll into any Premier League team despite his inability to lift the Blues’ midfield during last season’s struggles. Expect him to shine under new management.
Defensive midfielder: Radja Nainggolan
Roma are understandably very hesitant to depart with their star midfielder and the player himself hasn’t given any signs that he wants to leave. But Roman Abramovic usually gets his way and with Nemanja Matic’s likely departure to Manchester United he’d be extra motivated for this transfer to happen.
Centre midfielder: Axel Witsel
The Belgium midfielder’s departure from Zenit St Petersburg is a certainty and he has no shortage of options in the way of destinations. While the lack of Champions League football may be a deterrent, the prospect of working with a tactician of Conte’s class is likely to sway him in the direction of Stamford Bridge.
Left wing: Eden Hazard
As responsible as any other player for Chelsea’s woes last season. Although his stunning performance against Tottenham in the match that ended Spurs’ quest for the Premier League trophy came late enough into the season for fans to carry some good memories of him into the off-season. His class is undeniable and there’ll be no threat to his position in the starting line-up.
Right wing: Willian
Being the best player in a team packed with world-class players means little if your team does little other than fall apart for an entire season. If Conte can continue to get the best out of Willian while helping Hazard recapture his form, the new boss will be rewarded with one of the best wing combinations in Europe.
Striker: Diego Costa
Despite the signing of Belgium starlet Michy Batshuayi, Conte is more likely to start the season with the belligerent Spaniard. There’s no reason to believe his dip in form last year was due to anything other than what affected his team-mates. His 20 goals in 26 appearances during the club’s 2014/15 campaign is still fresh enough in the minds of club officials and supporters to warrant keeping hold of him.