LONDON - For Antonio Conte, the new season is just six days away. In his mind, the FA Community Shield against Arsenal is the start of the competitive campaign and not the final pre-season match.
"It is not a friendly game," Conte said. "It is an official game and there is a trophy, so for us it must be important.
"We lost the final of the FA Cup. It was a pity because we were in a position to win but Arsenal won the Cup. This is another story. We must fight and be ready to win.’
Chelsea’s readiness is open to debate. Conte has not cut a contented figure while on the club’s pre-season tour. He has been distracted, labouring under a weight of worry, often grumbling away in Italian to his various assistants as he paces the grass.
His small core of first-team players returned to London exhausted by three games in a week and a training schedule of intense double sessions in sweltering temperatures.
Defeats in Singapore against Bayern Munich and Inter soon stripped the sheen from a 3-0 win against Arsenal in China and eight goals behind closed doors against Fulham at Cobham. A diplomatic crisis with China over two of Kenedy’s Instagram posts did not help.
Chief among Conte’s concerns has been a transfer window which leaves him with a dearth of realistic first-team options. Eden Hazard and Tiemoue Bakayoko are injured and will miss the start of the season. Pedro is recovering from facial fractures suffered in the Beijing friendly against Arsenal.
Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic have been exiled awaiting transfers. Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic, Bertrand Traore, Christian Atsu and Nathaniel Chalobah have all been sold. John Terry was released and youngster Dominic Solanke quit for Liverpool at the end of his contract.
In January, Oscar, John Mikel Obi and Branislav Ivanovic were sold with a view to a major recruitment drive. But that is yet to materialise.
Assuming Costa leaves, and Matic’s transfer to Manchester United goes through on Monday, that will be 12 departures in 2017 from in and around the first-team squad.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this self-inflicted shortage has been the eagerness to farm out the cream of the young talent. Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Izzy Brown, Kasey Palmer and Tammy Abraham (all aged between 19 and 22) have been loaned to Premier League clubs. They may not be Chelsea-ready and competitive game time is vital to their development.
But at Wembley on Sunday, when Victor Moses is banned after a red card in the FA Cup final, the Chelsea subs’ bench is expected to feature inexperienced youngsters such as Charley Musonda and Jeremie Boga, who both impressed on tour, and possibly forgotten striker Loic Remy.
If you include the five young players on loan, Chelsea’s 2017 exodus reaches 17.
There are four new signings: Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger, Willy Caballero and Bakayoko. And Andreas Christensen has rejoined after two years on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach.
Overall, Conte can claim to be 12 players down, which explains his public pleas for reinforcements. It also raises the question: how on earth have the Premier League champions got into this pickle with the season days from starting? Chelsea’s start to the season is tough, with four of last season’s top seven to face in the first seven games.
As if to hammer home his point about lack of options, Conte deployed his £70million centre forward Morata on the left during the 2-1 defeat against Inter.
The champions are confident of signing three or four more before the transfer market closes at the end of August, possibly including wide men Alex Sandro of Juventus and Antonio Candreva of Inter, both identified by Conte.
There is a desire from some at Stamford Bridge to add English players, with a nod to the Premier League’s squad limits. Both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ross Barkley are under consideration. Portugal midfielder Renato Sanches, available on loan from Bayern Munich, is another attractive option because he is 19 and there is no limit on the number of players under 21.
Chelsea won the league by a distance last season and the core remains intact. When Bakayoko comes into midfield for Matic and Morata for Costa up front, it is a powerful first XI. Rudiger is a versatile addition and Michy Batshuayi looks a far more confident striker since he scored the goal to win the title at West Brom.
In the manager’s mind, success this season hinges on strong cover to let him rest players across four competitions without losing momentum. He often claims he won the title with 13 players — his first XI plus Cesc Fabregas and Willian — but, like all managers plotting a European campaign, he longs for two first-teamers for each position.
"We have to continue to work," he said. "It is important to rest and restart our work."