Antonio Conte says Chelsea can't take top-4 spot for granted
LONDON -- Antonio Conte insisted that Chelsea cannot afford to focus solely on the Champions League despite admitting that they are no longer in the title race, warning that a top-four finish remains far from assured.
Conte's bleak assessment of his side's title chances came after a limp 1-0 defeat to West Ham on Saturday, and his worst fears were confirmed at Old Trafford on Sunday, when Manchester City extended their winning streak to 14 Premier League games with a 2-1 victory over Manchester United.
The gap between City and Chelsea now stands at 14 points, but Conte insisted that the level of competition for a top-four finish means his players cannot afford to take their eye off their domestic commitments regardless of how Monday's draw for the Champions League round of 16 pans out.
"Our priority is to play the league," Conte said. "We have our target to try to play for one of the four places in next season's Champions League.
"Don't forget that last season Arsenal and Manchester United were out of the Champions League, then Manchester United won the Europa League but otherwise Manchester United and Arsenal after nineteen years [would miss out].
"This target is very important for me, for the players and for all. I repeat, it is not simple to reach the first first four positions."
The most pressing issue for Conte to address over the festive period is a worrying lack of ruthlessness. Chelsea have scored one goal or fewer in four of their last five matches in all competitions, and directed just two of their 19 shots on target against West Ham.
"For sure, we have to improve our finishing and be more clinical," he admitted. "In the game against Atletico Madrid, the same thing happened because we created many chances. We scored but it was an own goal.
"Against Swansea, we won only 1-0. Against Newcastle we won 3-1 but we created a lot of chances to score. We must learn to be more clinical then to rest and recover more energy because it is not simple to play every three days."
Asked if this criticism applied particularly to striker Alvaro Morata, who missed Chelsea's best chance against West Ham, Conte replied: "This is for the whole team, if you remember against Atletico Madrid, [Andreas] Christensen had two chances to score.
"We have to improve as the whole team in every situation. Not just for this, this or this, because we want to tell this to the players. We are a team and we must improve as a team."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.