LONDON (AP) — If Antonio Conte wants a reliable indicator of how far his Tottenham team has come since last season, he couldn’t ask for a better test than Sunday’s trip to Chelsea.
Tottenham lost four times in four meetings last season against Conte’s former club, so a win at Stamford Bridge would send a clear message that Spurs have taken a big step forward after a first full offseason under the Italian coach.
It is the first meeting of the season between two of the “Big Six” teams, with both hoping to show they are ready to join champion Manchester City and Liverpool in what has been a two-horse race for the title in recent years.
“This game will be important to make the right evaluation about our improvement,” Conte said Friday. “I think this game will be very important to us whether we win, lose or draw and then we have to be good to make the right evaluation. … Last season we played three games (against Chelsea) after only two months since I arrived. Now we have seven months plus one month of preseason. We implemented the work and as a team we are better.”
Tottenham certainly looked good in its season opener against Southampton, when it came from a goal down to win 4-1. And that was without any of its six offseason signings starting the game.
Brazil forward Richarlison — who joined from Everton — is available after serving a one-game suspension, although he could find it difficult to break into Conte’s starting lineup. Dejan Kulusevski had a goal and an assist against Southampton, so the Sweden international is likely to remain a part of Tottenham’s attacking trio, alongside Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.
Conte led Chelsea to the 2017 Premier League title and managed to steer Tottenham to a fourth-place finish last season — one spot behind Chelsea — after taking over the north London club in November when the team was ninth in the table.
And according to Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel, those four wins over Tottenham last season — including the League Cup semifinals — don’t mean much when it comes to assessing any possible gap between the sides.
“Every team (Conte) trains competes for everything, no matter what team it is and what club it is,” Tuchel said. “They are one of the very best teams, maybe in the world, at counterattacks. We did a fantastic job in closing it down (last season). The players were unbelievably disciplined and aware. … If they start, you’re in big trouble, so we need to be smart and stop the counterattacks before they start.”
One factor that could slow the game down is the heat.
Temperatures could hit 35 degrees C (95 F) in London on Sunday, and Tuchel acknowledged that could affect his tactics and player selection.
“I’m not at the stage (where) the weather forecast influences my starting XI, but we accept this kind of heat has a physical effect on the players. In a stadium it can feel even worse, so it will be quite challenging,” Tuchel said. “It is also a matter of how much you want it, because it will feel very difficult. It’s a question of who has the ability to play through the pain.”
Conte, who was born in southern Italy, downplayed the effects of the heat.
“In Italy we have 40 or 42 degrees, especially where I was born in Lecce we sometimes touch 45 and we are used to this temperature,” Conte said. “But I understand for London it is unusual.”
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