Eden Hazard, Andreas Christensen crucial as Conte bids to turn Chelsea around
Chelsea's battling performance in the 3-0 rout of West Brom on Monday eased the pressure on manager Antonio Conte and gave supporters renewed hope their team may have rediscovered the competitive appetite required to win silverware.
While dreams of retaining the Premier League title have long since evaporated and the bitter disappointment at the way Conte's side failed to compete against Arsenal in the Carabao Cup semi-final has abated, thoughts now turn to Chelsea's chances in the FA Cup and Champions League.
Friday's fifth round FA Cup tie with Championship strugglers Hull City at Stamford Bridge should not be taken lightly, but it does look winnable and progress would put Chelsea within sight of Wembley. Four days later the Blues face the more daunting prospect of hosting Barcelona for the first leg of a Champions League round-of-16 tie which will be a true measure of whether Conte and his squad have put their problems behind them.
Two players vital to Chelsea's chances of making progress in both competitions are Eden Hazard and Andreas Christensen. Ahead of the Hull match, Conte will already be thinking about how to manage their minutes to maintain their effectiveness.
With a two-goal salvo against West Brom encapsulating his shimmering brilliance, it's easy to understand the importance of talismanic playmaker Hazard. At 27, the Belgium international is at the peak of his powers, and with 15 goals to his name this season he is also now the club's leading marksman in a campaign which has seen striker Alvaro Morata's appearances restricted by injury.
Given his unwanted status as the most fouled player in the Premier League, it's remarkable Hazard is not sidelined more often than he his. Fortunately, he has managed to avoid joining the list of Chelsea players to succumb to hamstring injuries which include Morata, Victor Moses, Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Willian, Ross Barkley and Andreas Christensen.
Christensen's recent absence was acutely felt by Chelsea, whose defence capitulated in spectacular fashion against Bournemouth and Watford. The 21-year-old centre-back was forced off in the 28th minute of the game against the Cherries with the score still 0-0. The Blues' backline subsequently caved in and conceded three goals. More of the same followed against the Hornets, who plundered four goals against a Christensen-less Chelsea defence.
Since breaking into Conte's starting XI, the Denmark international has earned rave reviews for the maturity of his displays. Of the 23 goals Chelsea have conceded in the Premier League this season only 12 have come when Christensen has played and three of those came in the opening day debacle against Burnley when Cahill and Fabregas were sent off. It was Cahill's early dismissal in that match that forced Conte to make a change and send on Christensen and the academy graduate hasn't looked back, usurping David Luiz from the influential central position in the Italian's favoured back three.
Late on against West Brom, Christensen looked to be slightly troubled by his hamstring and Conte brought him off early. Mindful of the Barcelona game, he must now decide whether or not to risk the defender against Hull. The same also goes for Hazard who although fully fit, might benefit from a rest and not running the risk of being kicked from pillar to post. The flip-side of the duo not playing against Hull is that Chelsea might not get the job done on the night and face an unwanted replay.
Life doesn't get any easier after the Barcelona game with back-to-back away Premier League matches against Manchester United and Manchester City followed by a home London derby with bogey side Crystal Palace and then a trip to the Camp Nou for the second leg. These are critical encounters which Conte will be desperate for Christensen and Hazard to be fully fit.
With questions asked about the harshness of the Italian's training regime and the part it has played in the hamstring injuries sustained by so many, perhaps now is the time to go easier on the players.
The consequences of not doing so and the likes of Christensen and Hazard not being available for selection could be disastrous.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco