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Conte: ‘Now there is hope’

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Plans to rotate team for midweek match against Huddersfield

A big match and a big win for Antonio Conte’s men today at Stamford Bridge. Although the odds of catching either Tottenham or Liverpool for that final Champions League place are still low, things look a great deal cheerier now that the gaps are down to two and three points, respectively, and we have a game in hand over Liverpool.

Chelsea’s chances of a top four finish have in fact gone up from 4% to 14%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s simulations.

Sunday’s 1-0 win over Liverpool saw the long-awaited return of a harnessing of midfield strength — Kanté imperious and Bakayoko playing well, too — with defensive excellence. It stifled a Liverpool attack that might have been laboring under a Champions League hangover from their tumultuous loss at Roma on Wednesday (nevertheless still reaching the final). It was the first time Liverpool have been held scoreless in consecutive league games since August 2015, two months before Jürgen Klopp was hired.

Unsurprisingly, having beaten Liverpool for the first time in his career, a very happy Antonio Conte who took the podium after the match.

I think we must be pleased because the players played a really good game. Usually when you have to play a must-win game it is not easy, it is normal to be nervous and today it was a must-win game but not against a simple opponent. Liverpool have reach the final of the Champions League, they are dangerous and it is impressive the way they attack, the way they defend and combination between them.

There had been a time, not that long ago, when both Tottenham and Liverpool had a ten-point lead on us, in early April after our 1-1 draw with West Ham at the Bridge. At the time, the gap looked insurmountable. Conte himself talked about “the reality” of playing in the Europa League.

But since then, they’ve stumbled, while Chelsea have built a tidy five-game winning streak and a modicum of hope. But we still don’t control our fate.

One month ago it was impossible to imagine to arrive at the end for the Champions League. Now there is the hope as we are getting three points. Our opponents are dropping points. Out vision is not in our hands, but we have to try to get three points to put pressure on the teams that stay ahead of us.

The next three points on offer come on Wednesday against Huddersfield Town, once again at Stamford Bridge. With some players — most notably Eden Hazard, who sometimes toyed with Liverpool’s defenders, and Olivier Giroud, who was kicked around — likely needing to recuperate, there will be some rotation. Conte had been able to field basically the same lineup in the last two games (save for Alonso coming back in after suspension today), but that’s unlikely to be the case in midweek.

I think today we must be pleased and we see a great desire and will to keep the hope alive for the Champions League. I don’t know if this will be enough at the end of season, but we have to try and we have to prepare against Huddersfield, who drew against City and we want to try to get three points. I will probably make a rotation and then we will see what happens and with a great will to fight.

Although nobody put a foot wrong against Liverpool (save, perhaps, for one errant pass by Gary Cahill) there was a defender who stood out for his aggressiveness, his pace and his ability to neutralize 31-goal man Mo Salah. That was Antonio Rudiger, who turned in one of his best performances in a Chelsea shirt. Conte, though, gave us a hint about his pre-game planning when he refused to focus just on Salah.

I think we played as a team, not just one player. I think he is an important player, but not just him. Firmino and Mane are top strikers. They score 70 goals with these three players, for this reason they stay in this position. You can see a great work and I think it is right also to give them a great compliment.

-Antonio Conte

In further good news, Conte also announced that Alvaro Morata’s injury wasn’t serious.

Plenty of positive momentum to take into Wednesday day, as Chelsea look for a sixth consecutive victory to keep the pressure on Spurs and Liverpool. Make it so.