LONDON - Antonio Conte muted the fanfare of Chelsea’s return to Europe with a warning about the need to rest and rotate his players in the opener against unfancied Qarabag.
Conte has Sunday’s derby against Arsenal and a congested autumn schedule on his mind. No doubt, he is also harbouring the lingering suspicion his squad would have been stronger had the club signed all his transfer targets.
Eden Hazard, just back after a broken ankle, is set to start on the bench with Alvaro Morata expected to take a breather. Danny Drinkwater is out with a calf injury.
"It is necessary to rotate, seven games in 21 days is not easy," Conte said.
It is a familiar refrain from the top foreign coaches in English football as they plan an attack on four fronts.
"You risk a lot," said Conte. "The risk could be to play with the same players I did against Leicester and then the question would be: why didn’t you change the team?"
"This is our job. We must use our eyes and our previous experience as player and coach. If you win, it was the best decision. If you lose, it was the worst decision."
Chelsea won 2-1 at Leicester on Saturday and face Arsenal on Sunday, followed by a Carabou Cup tie against Nottingham Forest and away games at Stoke and Atletico Madrid before a key Premier League date with Manchester City on September 30.
"I must be realistic and calm," said Conte. "To play every three days, to play 60-65 games at a high level, honestly is not easy. There is the necessity for rotation, otherwise you arrive without energy."
Qarabag are the champions of Azerbaijan, playing their first ever game in the Champions League proper. Chelsea are back in the competition for the first time since they were beaten by Paris Saint-Germain in March 2016.
They failed to qualify last season and, although they responded by winning the Premier League title, the manager spoke with caution about their chances of lifting the trophy again.
"You don’t create a big, strong team easily," said Conte. "We are starting a path and building something important. You have to grow step by step and arrive like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich - Juventus are the same now. You need time to do this. I played twice in the Champions League as Juventus coach but it wasn’t this Juventus. We were at the start of our path."
Conte’s best was to lead Juve into the last eight. A year later, his team crashed out at the group stage, losing to Galatasaray when the game was halted by heavy snow in Istanbul.
"I have more experience as a player," said Conte. "I played a lot of years in this tournament and played in the final. I won only once. It’s a great competition and we must be pleased to be back. But this competition is very tough."
Morata was a Champions League winner last season and has made a fine start to his career in London but Chelsea have reminded fans they face life bans and police action if they sing the song first heard in a 2-1 win at Leicester.
Travelling supporters serenaded their record signing with a verse including anti-Semitic reference to Tottenham.
"The language used in that song we find totally unacceptable," said a Chelsea spokesman. "People using this kind of language always try to argue a grey area. There is no grey area. That language used was anti-Semitic.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy. If there is evidence that season-ticket holders or members took part, and take part in the future, we will take the strongest possible action."