Chelsea Thibaut Courtois confident resurgent Chelsea are hitting form at right time • Champions face Atlético Madrid and Manchester City this week
• Eden Hazard still easing back from the bench after ankle injury
If there were any Chelsea fans still worrying whether they would make a better fist of defending their Premier League title than the previous attempt, the clinical way in which Antonio Conte’s side dispatched Stoke City on Saturday has surely dispelled those doubts.
A third successive away win courtesy of Álvaro Morata’s brilliant hat-trick ensured they remain within touching distance of the two Manchester clubs at the top of the nascent table, even if Conte will be more than happy to remain the shadows for now.
However, after the turbulence created by Diego Costa’s fractious departure and the surprise opening-day defeat at home against Burnley, it is a measure of their manager’s ability that his side prepare to face City in the first big title showdown of the season at Stamford Bridge on Saturday three points better off than at the same stage 12 months ago.
Chelsea’s defeat against Arsenal in their sixth game of the last campaign heralded the switch to the now familiar back three as they embarked on a winning run of 13 matches. This time around, with Morata already finding his feet up front in place of Costa and his fellow new arrival Tiémoué Bakayoko beginning to form a formidable partnership with N’Golo Kanté in central midfield, Conte will have no need to instigate such sweeping changes – especially given that Eden Hazard has yet to start in the Premier League after his ankle injury.
“Stoke away is a hard game and last year we only won in the last minutes,” said the goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, who will be fit to face his former club Atlético Madrid in Wednesday’s Champions League tie after emerging unscathed from a nasty fall in the second half. “This year Arsenal lost here. United struggled at 2-2, so to win by four is pleasing.”
In truth the scoreline against a side without three of their frontline defenders perhaps flattered Chelsea somewhat, even if Morata deserved all the plaudits for his superb display. At first glance the player who arrived at Juventus from Real Madrid in 2014 four days after Conte had left on his way to taking over as Italy manager does not appear to possess any special attributes. But the 24-year-old showed a deceptively gliding turn of pace to skip past Darren Fletcher for his second goal and was also a physical threat for Stoke’s makeshift backline throughout.
“I think now he is totally involved with our style of football and idea,” Conte said. “He is very strong and you can see that today. A lot of good contact and tackles. I think he showed he is a really good, complete player. He didn’t play a lot with Real Madrid and Juventus but now he has a great chance to show he is a really good striker, a fantastic striker.”
But while Morata can expect a hostile reception on his return to the Spanish capital on Wednesday, Courtois is not anticipating any such problems. The Belgium international spent three seasons on loan at the Vicente Calderón between 2011 and 2014 and is looking forward to experiencing their the brand new 68,000-seater Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
“I remember being at the presentation of the new stadium when they first revealed it,” he said. “I went there to see the place when there was only one stand – the old one – and they were doing the groundwork. It will be nice to see it.
“Álvaro played a lot of games against Atlético. I think it will be a big game against his old rivals. It will be more friendly for me but between the 90 minutes I will also be a rival of Atlético.”
That should at least provide Conte with more of a barometer for his side’s European ambitions than the 6-0 thrashing of Qarabag in the opening match, with the free-scoring City also looming large as the title race begins to take shape.
“It will be interesting for us,” Courtois said. “We have started this difficult week well with a good victory against Stoke and hopefully Wednesday and Saturday we will carry this good form on.
“The top teams are doing well this season and we are happy to be close to the top. If we want to close that gap we need to try and win next week.”
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