LONDON — Antonio Conte admitted that Willian has earned a place at the heart of his plans against Barcelona after the Brazilian continued his prolific scoring run in Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace.
Willian broke the deadlock on 25 minutes at Stamford Bridge, firing a low shot beyond Wayne Hennessey to net his fifth goal in his last five Chelsea appearances, the best form of his Blues career.
Martin Kelly’s own goal doubled Chelsea’s advantage before half-time and while former Blues youngster Patrick van Aanholt’s late strike led to an anxious finale, Conte’s men held on to keep pressure on Liverpool and Tottenham in the race for a top-four finish in the Premier League.
After the match, Conte confirmed that he will continue to reward Willian with a place in his starting XI, and praised the “maturity” that the 29-year-old is showing to impact games at both ends of the pitch.
“You can see that if a player stays in great form I’m the first to pick him in the starting XI,” Conte said. “Willian is playing in a fantastic way, but I want to underline, not only with the ball, also without the ball. He’s working very hard and he’s helping the team without the ball.
“He’s showing great maturity at this point of his career. In my heart I hope to see him at this level, to continue this performance. He’s playing very well with the ball, without the ball. It’s important to have balance within the game because when we lose our balance it’s very difficult.”
On the subject of Chelsea’s victory, Conte added: “This win was very important. If we want to fight for a place in the Champions League, now it will be very important not to drop points.
“We played really well, especially in the first half. For a lot of the game we dominated, we created many, many chances, a lot of chances to score. It’s a pity at the end we conceded the goal and then we played three minutes a bit nervous because after you dominate the game you hope to feel the game more relaxed. At the same time, I think the players managed the last few minutes in the best way.”
Conte’s focus now turns fully to Wednesday, when Chelsea take on Barcelona in the second leg of a finely-poised Champions League round-of-16 tie at Camp Nou, and he warned that his players will need to show other qualities in order to succeed.
“We have to show great resilience,” Conte continued. “The game will be totally different. We are playing against one of the best teams in the world. We have to try to have the same focus, the same attention as the first leg against Barcelona.
“We played a really great game. It was almost the perfect game. It won’t be easy. At the same time, we have to try the right solution to play this game. The best way sometimes is to speak with the players and to try to find together the right plan to face this game.”
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.