Chelsea 2017-18 Season Preview: Can Antonio Conte's Blues retain their Premier League crown?

Chelsea's summer hasn't quite gone to plan so far ahead of their Premier League opener against Burnley, but can the reigning champions maintain their form of last season?

Chelsea 2017-18 Season Preview: Can Antonio Conte's Blues retain their Premier League crown?
(Picture: Getty Images - Matthew Ashton/AMA)

As imperious title winners last term, Chelsea will undoubtedly face more hurdles along the road if they are to retain their Premier League crown in 2017-18 under Antonio Conte.

The Italian boss led the club to a league-record 30 wins last term thanks to an incredibly successful back-three, but has endured a bordering-on toxic summer in which the Blues have seemingly failed to keep the pace with their rivals. 

Conte must also end the trend of below-par title defences at Stamford Bridge, the past two having been followed up by underwhelming campaigns the year after.

Carlo Ancelotti's champions finished second in 2011, but were nine points off of Manchester United and scored 69 goals, not a poor amount by any means, but a drop from their record-breaking tally of 103 the year before.

And of course, who could forget José Mourinho's dreadful title defence in 2015-16 - finishing 10th, 31 points off of first, as the form of key players took a nosedive and saw the Portuguese boss sacked.

Conte has himself spoken of the need to avoid a "Mourinho season" - his team likewise having been so dominant last year - but there is certainly a feeling that Chelsea are more pregnable than they were.

The Blues have endured a complicated summer - their lengthy not-so-secret pursuit of former striker Romelu Lukaku seeing the Belgian end up at United with eventual addition Álvaro Morata perceived as Conte's second choice.

That must not distract from the Spaniard's obvious quality - scoring 20 goals for Real Madrid last season despite just 18 starts. Conte is also said to have been keen to work with the towering front-man for several seasons, having signed him at Juventus only to then take the Italy job.

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Much depends on Morata's form

The messy, and avoidable, situation with Diego Costa has been just as big a story as the failure to sign Lukaku. The Spaniard, lauded for his crucial goals last season which earned the club 15 points, was told he was no longer needed before a replacement was even signed.

Despite the brawny front-man's impact, and how crucial a player he has been for Chelsea over the last three years, there no appears to be no way back for Costa. His relationship with Conte has deteriorated beyond repair and is set to bring a regretful end to a successful spell in West London.

But Chelsea face wider issues than simply how they have gone about letting Costa quite brutally know he is no longer needed - Conte simply sending the striker a text message - and their Lukaku fiasco.

The Blues have simply not yet added the required depth that their season suggests they need.

If anything, they have trimmed their squad, their new signings largely replacing their outgoings. For example, Asmir Begović was replaced by Willy Caballero, Nemanja Matić making way for Tiémoué Bakayoko and of course Costa's exile in favour of Morata. Even Antonio Rüdiger, to a degree, takes John Terry's place in the squad. 

That leaves the club in a potentially hazardous situation, particularly with extra games to play and more travelling to undertake. But is has also reportedly led to tensions behind-the-scenes with Conte annoyed at the club's transfer strategy.

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Blues have to hope for a repeat of last season's fitness fortunes

Chelsea were very fortunate to have few injuries last season, their success based off of a strong core of 14 players, and their failure to recruit extra bodies has evidently left Conte frustrated - the boss recently stating that the club "need a lot of players."

Understandably so, for not adding enough depth could come back to haunt them. They have recouped good money for their outgoings - such as the £20 million earned from Nathan Aké's sale to Bournemouth - but at the price of leaving themselves vulnerable to an injury crisis.

That is undoubtedly the biggest concern surrounding Chelsea's season and whether they can sustain another title tilt.

But of course, it must still be remembered that despite Matić's departure to United, Costa's expected exit and the loss of several squad players and promising youngsters, this is very much still the same team that was so effective last term.

And just how effective they were, seeing off the challenge of a phenomenal Tottenham Hotspur team and boasting the top-flight's second-best attack and defence. Crucially, Eden Hazard was back to his best.

The Belgian will spend the first few weeks of the campaign watching from the sidelines after a broken ankle, but should he return in the same vein of form of last season: Chelsea have one of the league's best players and one of few with genuine world-class ability.

The question is whether Matić and Costa's departures prove damaging, and whether Chelsea's other players - particularly the likes of Victor Moses, Marcos Alonso and Gary Cahill - can perform to the same level of last season.

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Conte can still work his tactical magic

Perhaps Chelsea's greatest strength is their manager, who the club will trust can get the most out of his team - provided he is afforded the squad he demands. If not, then the off-field politics could once again play a part.

That would be more devastating than any player departure, given how magnificent Conte's achievement was last season.

Tipped for the sack after back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal, Conte adopted a 3-4-3 formation and took the league by storm with a high-energy brand of football that married defensive resilience and attacking verve.

Chelsea went on to win all but five of their next 32 top-flight matches after that tactical switch-up, and Conte is fully capable of provising similar innovation this season too.

The 48-year-old must find the means to continue Chelsea's success on the domestic stage as well as in Europe - with the Blues returning to the Champions League - but he proved last season he is capable of providing the answers. 

Conte, after all, has won the title in all of his last four seasons as a club manager with Juventus and Chelsea - though this campaign may prove to be his hardest yet as he looks for a fifth straight crown.

More business must surely be done if Chelsea are to replicate the heights they hit last term, but it would be very wrong to count out a manager of Conte's quality already. More signings would undoubtedly strengthen his hand.

It may be that Chelsea find less success with the 3-4-3 system this season, and with a tighter battle at the top of the table and a thin - but clearly talented - squad competing in four competitions, Conte's nous will certainly be required to achieve more success. 

Chelsea FC