The Blues beat Brentford in an impressive display featuring some of their young players and are now oozing confidence ahead of vital games to come
Antonio Conte has mastered the art of balancing a Premier League title challenge with the FA Cup – and Chelsea’s convincing 4-0 win over Brentford was evidence of how a good cup run can help their league aspirations rather than hinder them.
While Liverpool were dumped out by Championship side Wolves and Tottenham were made to go the full 90 in their struggle to get past Wycombe Wanderers of League Two, Chelsea had this match wrapped up in little over 20 minutes and remain on course to contend in two major competitions.
The top six teams in England should expect to compete on all fronts with the resources at their disposal and the Blues have proven that they are serious not only about the Premier League but the FA Cup, too.
Varied, unpredictable and creative football was on show at Stamford Bridge, with a superb free-kick from Willian to enjoy before a beautiful moved finished off by Pedro made it 2-0. Branislav Ivanovic scored the third in what could be his last appearance for the club and Michy Batshuayi netted a penalty to make it four.
Conte is building an impressive young squad and he is using the FA Cup to keep his substitutes fresh and blood the next generation of youngsters, including the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathaniel Chalobah and Batshuayi.
Nathan Ake also made his return to the club after being recalled from Bournemouth and Kenedy’s place in the squad for the rest of the season was confirmed, with his substitute appearance making another loan move impossible as he has now played for two clubs in 2016-17.
The returning Kurt Zouma, meanwhile, was solid and assured against Championship opposition as he learns how to play in a 3-4-3 for the first time in his career. He made only his second appearance of the season after a long period on the sidelines with a tear of his cruciate ligament suffered last season.
Playing for Brentford was an example of the results of Chelsea’s previous failure to nurture their academy talent. Josh McEachran returned with the Bees as the English prospect who should have made it at Chelsea and Conte is using the FA Cup to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated again, with Loftus-Cheek and Chalobah showing they are ready for further first-team action.
Chalobah looked like he has been learning from Cesc Fabregas, clipping a few wonderful balls in behind the Brentford defence as Conte tries to develop him into a midfielder for the future.
Chelsea’s academy and loan system is key to their future success and Conte is doing a better job of making use of it than many previous managers under Roman Abramovich. This was the first match in which they have started four players brought through their own ranks since 2010.
On the senior side, Willian, Fabregas and Pedro played the key roles in the victory and competition for places remains high at the club ahead of crunch league matches against Liverpool and Arsenal.
Chelsea will face sterner tests than this, but their ability to retain focus against all opposition is what is needed in a title race and every win counts when you are chasing trophies.
Conte has brought back the gift of mental strength which he learned by winning titles as a player and manager at Juventus. It deserted Chelsea last season but they are a club that has been transformed by the Italian’s presence.
The Blues’ winning run at home now stands at 10 straight games and they will be favourites, even as they travel to Anfield, against a fragile and unsettled Liverpool side on Tuesday.