As rivals struggle in FA Cup, Chelsea flaunts squad strength
LONDON (AP) — Chelsea’s display of its squad strength bodes well for the pursuit of a double.
A 4-0 victory over Brentford in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday appeared routine, with Willian, Pedro Rodriguez, Branislav Ivanovic, and Michy Batshuayi scoring.
But with nine changes made to the side that beat Hull in the English Premier League last weekend, this was an exhibition of strength in depth. And more significantly, youth from the league leader.
As rivals Liverpool and Tottenham made similar personnel changes and struggled in the FA Cup, Antonio Conte’s side displayed the professionalism and ruthlessness that has seen them win 13 of their last 14 games in all competitions and build an eight-point lead in the title race.
“This competition has been an opportunity for me to put players in that aren’t playing a lot,” Conte said. “But it was very important to see the right reaction from these players, so I’m very happy.”
Chelsea’s extraordinary form has been aided by its absence from European competition, which has contributed to a lack of injuries, enabling Conte to field the same starting lineup with unparalleled regularity.
The one negative to come from this has been the lack of opportunities available to the wider squad — from the emerging talent through to the veterans.
Midfielder Cesc Fabregas has been relegated from starter to impact substitute, while former defensive stalwarts John Terry and Ivanovic have hardly been seen.
There were five players aged 23 or under in the starting lineup against Brentford: Kurt Zouma, Nathan Ake, Nathaniel Chalobah, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Batshuayi.
The talented quintet is unlikely to force its way into the starting side imminently. But with Chelsea set for a return to Champions League football next season, they are declaring themselves ready to provide the greater squad depth that will be required.
“Our young players are growing, and for the club and for me this is very important,” Conte said.
“The FA Cup is a good opportunity to see these young players, the improvement of these players, and I’m satisfied by what I saw today.”
Promoting players from the club academy to its first team has long been an ambition of owner Roman Abramovich, but to this point one that has been largely unsuccessful.
The pressure to produce instant results has often hindered the club’s ability to develop young talent, but Conte has already showed greater intent than many of his Abramovich-era predecessors in this regard.
“If the young players deserve to play, I’m ready to put them in the team and squad,” Conte said. “I’m not scared of the young players. The only thing that I ask is that they must be ready to play.”
Chelsea’s youngsters showed their manager that they are ready on Saturday.