LONDON (Reuters) - Antonio Conte says he is ready to rotate his squad as Chelsea return to the Champions League after a one-year absence with a home clash against Group C outsiders Qarabag on Tuesday.
The Azerbaijan side visit Stamford Bridge three days after Chelsea’s hard-fought 2-1 victory at Leicester City in the Premier League and ahead of the champions’ home game against London rivals Arsenal this weekend.
It is a dilemma Conte was spared last season when he masterminded Chelsea’s Premier League title triumph in his first season coaching in England - a legacy of a 10th placed finish the year before which captain Gary Cahill calls “a freak”.
Qarabag are likely to be the whipping boys of a group containing Roma and Atletico Madrid, but Conte must balance a desire to rest players with the knowledge that any slip-up could seriously dent their chances of reaching the last 16.
Conte said influential forward Eden Hazard, fit again after recovering from a broken ankle, will only be on the bench while new signing Danny Drinkwater is doubtful with a calf injury.
He said he was ready to shuffle his pack.
“We played a tough game (at Leicester) and spent a lot of energy. To play seven games in 21 days is not easy,” he said at a news conference. “It’s normal to prepare some rotations.
“There is the necessity to rotate and play game-by-game.”
Striker Alvaro Morata, signed from Real Madrid in the summer, may also be benched, says Conte.
“Don’t forget Morata played a whole game with Spain and then the whole game against Leicester. I have to check many situations and make the best decisions for tomorrow,” he said.
“I’m very calm about this, I trust my players.”
Conte won the Champions League as a player with Juventus in 1996 and twice led them into the competition as manager, losing to eventual winners Bayern Munich in 2012-13. The following year Juventus fell in the group phase.
He says Chelsea are “starting a path” to compete against the cream of Europe.
“I hope this path is short and not long to try and be competitive in a short time and not be three, four or five years,” he said. “It’s a great competition and we must be pleased to be back after last season and proud to play in this competition and push ourselves.
“In order to win you need to work very hard and go step by step and arrive and be like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus. You don’t create a big, strong team easily.”
Despite his caution, Conte will believe that his side can have a deep run in the competition they won in 2012.
“If you asked me if we had a chance to win the title in England you’d have said zero,” Conte said. “Instead we changed totally the opinion of the people.”
Conte will not be taking Qarabag lightly.
“For me Qarabag are a good team,” he said. “I know a lot of these players very well, because I played against Azerbaijan when I was Italian coach.”
(The story refiles to fix typos in paragraphs one and ten.)
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alison Williams