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Conte defends selection policy, wants a bit of credit for picking Willian

Conte doesn’t think it’s stupid to put Willian on the bench if it’s done in order to help the team win.

Chelsea FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

A month ago, against Arsenal, Willian was making a 50th straight Premier League appearance and his 68th appearance in 69 games in all competitions for Chelsea. We had feared that the hamstring injury he picked up in that game would not only derail those streaks (which it did), but decrease his effectiveness. As it turned out, after missing two and a half games — he was back for Watford but not quite fully fit and was withdrawn after Bakayoko’s red card — Willian was back and better than ever. Fully recovered, he’s now scored three goals in his last two starts and was very unlucky to not get more than just the one against Barcelona.

It is perhaps that success that prompted the question about not picking Willian enough in Friday’s press conference (off-cameras portion) — and not just this season but dating back to last season as well. But while Willian has had very good success whenever he’s started, Chelsea have had very good success overall as well, especially stretching back to last season.

Understandably, Conte didn’t think the question was worth a diplomatic response. After all, he’s been criticized for rotating, not rotating, picking certain players, and not picking those same players throughout the season and he’s probably grown quite tired of such worthless questions.

“Do you think that I am stupid? When I put Willian on the bench? I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something? Now he is playing because he deserves to play. But not because there is some regret from the past. For what?

“If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, stay on the bench, stay in the stands.

“But this is not only for one player, but for all my players. This is what a winning mentality is. Not if one player is happy or if he is not happy if he doesn’t play. It doesn’t matter.

“I have to make the best decision for the team. He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

-Antonio Conte; source: Evening Standard

Confidence and commitment must indeed be back in full effect at Cobham if Conte’s returning to one of last year’s themes, about his job being not to keep players happy, but to win games (which in turn should make everyone happy).

It’s also a strange question just in terms of the player involved. Willian may not have been a nailed-on starter since Conte arrived — last year losing his place through no fault of his own to Pedro; this year affected by Conte’s dalliance with the 3-5-2 — but he’s been one of the first names off the bench with undeniable consistency. And with the increased amount of games available this year, he’s already played more minutes than all of last season.

If Willian were truly unhappy with his treatment, he would have surely pushed for a move to Manchester United this summer, as was rumored. That said, he will be entering the final two years of his contract and turning 30 this summer, so Chelsea will have to make a decision whether to offer him a new long-term contract. Willian has said before that he wants to see out the rest of his career at Stamford Bridge, and there’s no reason to think that sentiment has changed.

Willian’s start against Barcelona was his 222nd appearance for Chelsea, passing the 221 he made for Shakhtar Donetsk. He’s now truly one of our own and it’s weird that the media would try to sow palpable discord between him and Conte. Okay, maybe not weird — gots to sell them papers and gets them clicks — but the press conference had already started meandering down a stupid direction in the on-camera portion, so it’s not surprising that it went even further beyond that threshold when the cameras were off.

Whether Willian will start again tomorrow is up for debate, but perhaps we should strike the iron while it’s hot. The hat-trick’s coming!

“I’m always ready to score goals. I think the hat-trick is coming soon. I nearly scored one against Hull [in last Friday’s FA Cup tie] and against Barcelona.”

-Willian; source: Metro

Yes please.

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