In a week in which their 13 match winning run was snapped, the FA Cup third round afforded Antonio Conte and Chelsea an opportunity to move on as well as rest some weary legs. The meeting with Peterborough also presented fringe players with the chance to impress and perhaps force a way into the league leader’s starting eleven.
The hosts ran out comfortable 4-1 winners against the expansive but naive Posh. Pedro missed one of the sitters of the season but also swept home a double to take his tally to six for the season. Apart from the Spaniard, the other standout performers were Willian and academy graduate duo Nathaniel Chalobah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Michy Batshuayi filled the centre-forward role, yet despite scoring, failed to catch the eye of his manager. Turning over possession sloppily, struggling to link with his fellow attackers and at times forcing his touches, the Belgian looked bereft of confidence. In the 39th minute, he ignored a darting run by Willian and desperately tried to score, much to Conte’s irritation.
Following the game, Conte did his best to lend support for his summer signing:
“Michy played a good game. He stayed into our philosophy, our idea of football. He showed me great commitment and work-rate. He has to continue working in this way. He’s a young player, he is improving.”
The future appears to be uncertain for the 23 year-old though. Reports this week suggest that the club may be willing to allow him depart on loan. That could be a move that suits all parties. Diego Costa is undisputedly Chelsea’s number one striker, and due to his improved fitness and shedding of his hitherto disciplinary problems, game time has been lacking for Batshuayi. In order to develop, he needs minutes on the pitch.
If Batshuayi does leave, his rumoured replacement is a familiar face that Conte knows well. Fernando Llorente worked alongside the Italian at Juventus and was key in securing a third Scudetto in a row for the old lady. Partnering with Carlos Tevez, the Basque striker was the perfect foil for the Argentinian.
In his press conference on Sunday, Conte refused to be drawn on the link, providing the usual managerial soundbites of “respecting other clubs”. But Llorente might represent the perfect short-term solution and contribute to Chelsea’s championship bid. Llorente is 32 next month, possesses lots of experience and has won titles at club and international level.
The 6 foot 5 gargantuan would offer Conte a totally different dimension. As well as his obvious threat in the air, Llorente is technically proficient and surprisingly nimble for a man of his size. Of course, he offers Chelsea the option of going direct. Manchester United supporters will remember him bullying their defenders during their Europa League exit at the hands of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao in 2012.
In short bursts, Llorente could provide the Yin to Diego Costa’s Yang. Centre-backs worn out having faced over an hour of Costa’s pace, power and relentlessness would hardly have the appetite for a battle with the strength and athleticism of Llorente in the closing stages of games.
The question is whether or not Swansea would be willing to part with Llorente, having only brought him to Wales in the summer. Their new manager Paul Clement has only been in charge for two games, so it remains to be seen what his plans for the team are.
Unless they have a replacement striker lined up, allowing Llorente leave would seem a counter-productive decision. Record signing Borja Baston, who scored 18 goals for tiny Eibar in La Liga last season, has puzzlingly played little part for the Swans. Other than Baston, Clement’s only forward alternative is 20 year-old Olivier McBurnie.
If Chelsea were willing to trade Batshuayi for Llorente on a short-term basis, maybe the deal could be done. Either way, Conte looks to be preparing for the one scenario that he hasn’t faced in his first term in English football – the absence of Costa for an extended period. The 28 year-old has struck the net 14 times already and is critical to any chance the Blues have of taking the Premier League trophy back to Stamford Bridge.
Ensuring he has a viable solution to that possibility must be Conte’s priority in January. The mooted idea of a swap could prove profitable for all involved. Batshuayi would get exposed to regular game time, Llorente would get the opportunity to add another league title medal to his haul late in his career and Conte gets an insurance policy if his leading man is missing. Rarely has transfer business looked so convenient.