Conte claims Ampadu's progress shows 'age is not important'
LONDON -- Antonio Conte insisted that Ethan Ampadu's rapid rise to the Chelsea first team in recent months is proof that "age is not important" in the decisions he makes regarding team selection.
Signed from Exeter City in the summer for a fee still to be decided by a tribunal, 17-year-old Ampadu has made four senior appearances for Chelsea and started twice in the Carabao Cup, impressing with his physicality and poise in central midfield and central defence.
Ampadu will start again in the defensive line when Chelsea host Norwich in Wednesday's FA Cup third round replay at Stamford Bridge and Conte praised the youngster for pushing himself in training at Cobham to make the most of the first-team opportunities afforded to him.
"He deserves to play," Conte said. "He's showing in every game that I made this decision with him -- against Everton, against Bournemouth [in the Carabao Cup] -- that he's ready. That he's ready to face this type of game. To play with the right concentration. To be ready physically and tactically. To play at this level.
"This [physical and tactical quality] is unusual for a player who is only 17 years old," continued the Chelsea manager. "But that shows, at the same time, that age is not important. The most important thing is that you show, when I give you the chance to play, you repay me with a good performance. We are talking about a really good prospect for Chelsea, for the present and the future."
Meanwhile, a number of Chelsea supporters are clamouring for prolific academy striker Callum Hudson-Odoi to be given a first-team chance, particularly in light of recent struggles in front of goal for Alvaro Morata and Michy Batshuayi. However, Conte insisted on Tuesday that the 17-year-old Hudson-Odoi needs to make "another step" in training before he is ready for senior minutes.
Asked what any player must do in training to convince him that he is ready to play, Conte replied: "The most important thing during training sessions is to show great commitment, great desire to fight for a place, for this chance to play. This is very important.
"Every single player must have this desire, this will to learn and improve, and to put yourself in contention. This is the best way for every single player to improve himself and also to show me this great desire."
Conte has been vocal about his desire to see Chelsea's squad increase in size during the January transfer window, while stressing that he is not taking an active role in the club's identification of targets.
Reports have claimed that Chelsea had moved to rival Manchester United for the signing of unsettled Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez, a player Conte has long admired and pushed to sign from Udinese when he was coach of Juventus. But the Italian dismissed questions about Sanchez.
"I like to talk about a situation that could be real, you understand?" Conte said when the subject was raised. "It's not important to talk about Sanchez. He's not our good problem, so why do I have to waste words on nothing?"
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.