LONDON (AFP) – Antonio Conte insists Chelsea have nothing to fear in the Champions League last 16 even though his side could face a crunch clash with Barcelona or Paris Saint Germain.
Conte’s team blew their chance to finish top of Group C as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.
That allowed Roma to clinch pole position with a win over Qarabag, the Italians moving above Chelsea because of their better head-to-head record.
Turkish side Besiktas or Sevilla, if they win a group currently topped by Liverpool, are other possible opponents for the English champions.
But Chelsea boss Conte is adamant his players shouldn’t be scared about taking on one of the big guns because they are strong enough to trouble any team.
“When you play this competition and you go through to the next round you must be ready to face the best teams,” he said.
“In this case we know we could play Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain or Besiktas.
“We must be ready. At the same time, I think our opponent won’t be happy to play against us.
“It is a fantastic competition. We reached the next round and we must be happy with this.”
Already lagging well behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, Chelsea can’t rely on Europe for silverware despite Conte’s fighting talk.
But while City, Tottenham Manchester United have cruised through to the last 16, Conte claims Chelsea had to battle through a much harder group.
And the Italian warned Chelsea’s English rivals that it won’t be easy to maintain that form in the latter stages of the competition.
“Last season we won the league but it was a surprise. This season we are trying to do our best in the league and the Champions League,” he said.
“We have to show we deserve to go through to the next round and to fight until the end for the title.
“Our group was really tough. It was easy for a lot of these teams to go to the next round.
“But this season is very tough. You have to play a lot of games, then you arrive at the final stage. For this reason is can be problematic to win it.
“The English teams are very good, they have the possibility to reach the final. The only question is what physical condition.”
Chelsea’s downfall against Atletico was poor marking by Tiemoue Bakayoko, who allowed Saul Niguez to head home in the second half before the hosts equalised through Stefan Savic’s own goal.
Conte refused to blame Bakayoko, saying: “He is a young player. He is working to try to improve.
“In this case it’s important to have patience. Mistakes are normal.”
After finishing as Champions League runners-up in 2014 and 2016, Atletico missed out on the last 16 for the first time since 2010 and are consigned to the Europa League.
They needed a win and Roma to drop points in the last round of fixtures, but despite the disappointment, boss Diego Simeone insisted they had nothing to be ashamed of.
“We only lost one game in the 90th minute but I repeat there are no excuses,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a failure. We knew it could happen. To the fans I would say we have a long season ahead and we will see what happens.
“We showed strength, we showed we are a competitive team.
“Without doubt we’ve paid the price for not being able to win the two games against Qarabag.”