Any hopes Arsenal had that the Blues would be drawn into an energy-sapping contest of body and mind were dashed after five minutes, as Pedro handed the home side a lead they steadily and resolutely built on thereafter.
Qarabag’s display was mere confirmation their maiden campaign in the Champions League proper will consist of nothing more than attempting to stave off heavy defeats, and the risk Conte described in rotating his squad felt almost non-existent throughout.
The Italian made five changes to a team who scored six unanswered goals, while he was able to substitute Pedro and N’Golo Kante early and give a useful 32-minute run-out for Eden Hazard. There was also a confidence-boosting late flurry for Michy Batshuayi.
Photo: John Walton/PA Wire
Rather than endangering the progress of his team, Conte witnessed several players stake their claim for involvement against the Gunners on Sunday lunchtime, with Davide Zappacosta, in particular, impressing on his full debut for the club even if his initially spectacular goal lost its sheen when replays confirmed his long-range effort was a miscued cross.
Still, it put Chelsea 2-0 up on the half hour, freeing them up to run riot after the interval, as Cesar Azpilicueta scored the first European goal of his career before Tiemoue Bakayoko marked his home debut with the fourth prior to a brace from Batshuayi, although UEFA quibbled his second may have been an own goal.
Throw in the fact Roma and Atletico Madrid played out a goalless draw in the group’s other game and Conte could not have asked for more.
“It was a good start, a perfect start for us,” said the Chelsea boss. “To play the first game Champions League, then to win with a good result, to score many goals, to have a clean sheet. I saw a lot of positive things. Now we have to continue, we have to rest and then to start to think about the next game, a strong game, a tough game against Arsenal.”
Hazard was palpably ring-rusty but this was a useful 32-minute outing, especially given his only prior competitive action this season following a fractured ankle had been a 13-minute cameo at Leicester last weekend.
The sight of Hazard slaloming through Arsenal’s backpedalling defence, brushing off Francis Coquelin along the way, before finishing past Petr Cech may still give Arsene Wenger nightmares but Conte cast doubt over the Belgian’s eligibility to aid a repeat of February’s 3-1 win over the Gunners.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Asked whether Hazard was sufficiently match-fit to start against Arsenal, Conte told Standard Sport: “It’s early. We must have a bit of patience with him and to try to give the possibility to Eden to recover very well, to be totally fit and I think this is the right process for him. Don’t forget that in the team there are two players, like Pedro, like Willian, playing very well.
“But we must be pleased to see him in the team. Now we must be calm and to do the best for the player and for the team. Otherwise we risk a bad injury to delay the situation. This is the right way. This process is good for him.”
Conte citing the options available to him is a far cry from his mood throughout pre-season and following Chelsea’s opening day defeat by Burnley.
Although he repeated the familiar refrain from that period about the folly of trying to repeat past successes by relying on such a small group of players, the emphasis has shifted towards integration and internal competition.
In response to a question asking whether Chelsea were now in the perfect shape to play Arsenal, Conte replied: “I wanted to give an opportunity to Michy and also to [Andreas] Christensen,” he said. “To play in the Champions League means that the coach trusts you. My message was this. I trust all my players.
“The first game in Champions League, I decided to start with the rotation also because we have to start a process to improve these players. If we think we can only play like last season with 13 players, we are crazy. We have to improve these players and try to create a good competition between them. It is very important.”
Conte may have essentially sidestepped the topic but it is difficult not to conclude Chelsea have conditions very much in their favour ahead of Arsenal’s arrival, given they will have had two days’ additional preparation for the match and the facile nature of this midweek clash.
The Gunners may have a dreadful record in west London, losing on seven of their previous eight visits, but Arsene Wenger’s side got the better of Chelsea in the FA Cup Final last season and in the Community Shield at the beginning of this one.
On both occasions, Chelsea were perhaps not fully tuned up, having relaxed after winning the Premier League and being in the midst of squad surgery in August. The signs are Conte will not have any such problems this time.