Antonio Conte’s decision to drop (“rest”?) Diego Costa was not entirely surprising — it had been rumored the day before, while Costa’s recent performances also meant that many had been calling for exactly that to happen — but the decision to leave not only him but Eden Hazard as well out of the starting lineup on Saturday certainly raised a few eyebrows.
Pedro and Willian are of course proven winners and big players on the international stage, but Conte’s decision was still one that carried with it plenty of risk (especially with regards to Batshuayi) and opened him up for potential criticism were Chelsea to lose the game. Fortunately that did not happen, with Willian grabbing a brace before making way for Hazard and his winning goal. The bold decisions paid off in a bold way.
But were these two decisions tactical or were they fitness-based? Chelsea do have a game coming up on Tuesday after all, with the three points up for grabs there most crucial in the title-race. After Saturday’s win, Conte explained his thinking on this issue.
“For sure when you arrive in this part of the season, and you know you have to play three tough games and one is a semi-final and a top game, and a top priority, but you know you have to play on Tuesday after only two and a half days a game very important for us and for the league, you have to take strong decisions.”
“We play a Southampton team who rest for 10 days and Tottenham have one more day to rest and they play Crystal Palace who have to play tomorrow. You have to take responsibility for your decisions and it is a great responsibility, it is not easy to start the game without two really important players.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Chelsea FC
Conte spent a fair bit of his post-match conference talking about the scheduling of these fixtures for both Chelsaa and Spurs, getting more and more animated about it with every new question as Spurs have not only an extra day to rest now, but will play a Crystal Palace team on Wednesday who are coming off of two days rest while Chelsea play a well-rested Southampton (10 days) on Tuesday.
While it’s a bit silly for us to be complaining about fixtures after enjoying a rather sparse calendar for most of the season (including the holiday period), it still quite clearly factored into Conte’s decision-making for today.
Costa’s form and Hazard’s struggles in the last game still probably played a part (i.e. they were suddenly not undroppable) — not that I would expect Conte to admit any such thing in public — but it would appear that the coach’s decision was motivated more by fitness than tactics.
As Eden Hazard revealed in his post-match comments, he already knew of the decision yesterday, so it did not come as a surprise to him. Presumably Costa knew as well, and given his fantastic reaction to Willian’s first goal, it’s safe to say that he was very much committed to the cause still.