Antonio Conte praised the depth of his Chelsea squad after they eased into the last 16 of the FA Cup with a 4-0 win over Brentford as he told the Premier League leaders to prepare for tougher challenges ahead.
Branislav Ivanovic, in what could be his final appearance for the Blues if a reported move away from Stamford Bridge takes place in the closing days of the January transfer window, scored one goal and created another in a 30-minute substitute appearance.
By the time of Ivanovic’s 69th-minute goal, Chelsea were already 2-0 up thanks to early first-half efforts from Willian and Pedro. Michy Batshuayi completed the scoring with a penalty nine minutes from time.
Conte rang the changes ahead of Tuesday’s league match at Liverpool and the Chelsea manager said: “To win away at Liverpool is never easy and we lost the game against them here.
“It will be a really tough game but after that it will be 15 games to the finish line and you want to continue going this way to keep them in the distance,” he added of a Liverpool side who are currently 10 points behind Chelsea and will go into Tuesday’s match on the back of being knocked out of the FA Cup by second-tier Wolves.
“They can fight to the end,” Italian boss Conte insisted.
Chelsea have now won 10 successive home games but Pedro and Cesar Azipilicueta were the only likely members of the Blues starting side at Anfield that featured against fellow west London club Brentford.
But the second string still proved too strong for the Championship team who had no answer to the pace and movement of the hosts.
– ‘Idea of football’ – “The FA Cup is a good opportunity to see the improvement of these young players,” said Conte. “I am satisfied with what I saw today.
“All the players are totally involved in our idea of football — in our project. It’s very important for me.
“For instance, to score a goal is always important for a forward. Michy works very hard for the team, and is improving,” he added.
Chelsea and Brentford last met in 2013 with the Blues needing a replay at the same stage of the FA Cup to see off the Bees.
A repeat never looked likely on Saturday. Chelsea had scored in their last 40 FA Cup ties, stretching back to 2000, and they continued that run through Willian’s early free-kick.
Pedro struck before the break and then Ivanovic got into the act before the Serbia defender was fouled for the penalty converted by Batshuayi.
“I’m pleased for Ivan to score a goal and it’s important to evaluate a lot of things,” said Conte, who was coy over Ivanovic’s future.
“This season he is not playing a lot with us. It’s not easy to accept this decision but he knows the situation. Players must make the best decision for him and his family and I’m ready to accept every decision.
“He deserves great respect for his Chelsea career and he has won a lot.”
Brentford’s biggest task now is to decide whether striker Scott Hogan is given the green light to join West Ham.
Hogan is rated at £15 million ($19 million, 17.6 million euros) but West Ham have yet to meet the valuation of fellow London club Brentford.
“I have no idea what’s happening with him,” said Brentford manager Dean Smith, who brought Hogan off the bench in the 64th minute against Chelsea.
“I fear interest all the time and I don’t know if his valuation will be met. If it’s not, then he will remain a Brentford player.”