LONDON: Antonio Conte must work out how to overcome the loss of midfielder N’Golo Kante when Chelsea attempt to get their Premier League title defence back on track at Crystal Palace.
Conte’s side signed off for the international break with a disappointing home defeat by Manchester City that left the defending champions in fourth place, six points adrift of Pep Guardiola’s Premier League leaders.
And the Blues suffered another blow last week when Kante picked up a hamstring injury while on duty with France.
The midfielder limped out of the 1-0 victory against Bulgaria, and after returning to Stamford Bridge to be examined by club doctors, is now expected to be out for the rest of the month.
Kante, 26, has been an ever-present during the league campaign so far.
While Conte will be confident his side can beat bottom club Palace, the former Leicester City man’s absence will be felt during the coming weeks when Chelsea will expect to make progress in the league and in back-to-back Champions League group meetings with Roma.
Conte is also likely to be without Alvaro Morata, who is suffering from a hamstring problem picked up in the City defeat.
The forward’s injury is not as bad as first feared but he is not expected to be risked at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
The loss of two influential figures will place pressure on Conte’s squad.
The manager was believed to have been left frustrated by his club’s failure to bring in more players during the transfer window.
And his decision to initially replace Morata with Willian, a midfielder, against City raised doubts about the manager’s faith in Michy Batshuayi, his only other recognised senior striker.
Batshuayi, who scored a memorable winning goal in the Champions League visit to Atletico Madrid, should start against Palace but Conte has also spoken of the possibility of employing Eden Hazard as a false centre-forward.
Hazard made his first league start of the season against City and the Belgium forward warned it will take time for him to overcome the lingering effects of a long-term ankle injury.
“I missed football for three months and it’s not easy to come back after a big injury but I did,” Hazard said.
“I worked out during the summer. I just want to play football. I will miss some games, I will play bad for some games. I just want to play football and try to bring the best of me.”
Palace manager Roy Hodgson faces far more significant problems as his side attempt to halt a dismal start to the season that has left them without a point or a goal from the opening seven matches.
Already Palace’s prospects look bleak, although they could be boosted by the return of winger Wilfried Zaha against Chelsea.
Zaha has been out with a knee injury and his absence has contributed to his team’s woeful lack of creativity up front.
Hodgson, though, is convinced he can see signs of improvement.
“The messages being put across are being grasped by the players. We now have Chelsea and it doesn’t get any easier,” said the former England manager after the defeat by Manchester United before the international break.
“The break will be good to get more work done. I hope my enjoyment and passion for the game will spread over to the players.
“At the moment we’re like a boxer knocked down by superior fighters. We try to stay in there and not surrender.”--AFP