by Steven GRIFFITHS
Antonio Conte has warned his Chelsea stars to be wary of the threat posed by their former team-mate Kevin De Bruyne in Saturday’s crunch clash with Manchester City.
De Bruyne was a peripheral figure in his two years at Chelsea after failing to impress Jose Mourinho, who sold him to German club Wolfsburg in 2014.
The 25-year-old Belgium midfielder was a huge hit in the Bundesliga and he has maintained his rise since joining City for £55 million ($69 million, 65 million euros) last year.
Although Mourinho has since been replaced by Conte in the Chelsea dugout, the Italian coach fears De Bruyne will still have a point to prove to the Premier League leaders when they visit Manchester.
“I think he’s a really great player. It’s a pity that now he’s playing for another team,” Conte said.
“I wish for him the best, but after our game. We know that it won’t be easy because we face a really great team.
“We want to show we are working very well and we are growing.”
City are one point behind Chelsea heading into the first meeting this season between two teams who have quickly emerged as leading title contenders under their new managers.
While City featuring in a title battle only five months into Pep Guardiola’s reign is hardly a surprise given the club’s financial muscle and their Spanish manager’s impeccable CV, Chelsea’s presence at the top of the table is more unexpected.
The Blues were in turmoil last season before and after Mourinho was sacked, but former Italy and Juventus coach Conte has teased out renewed focus and passion from a squad of fragile egos and the results have been impressive.
Three points in Manchester would take Chelsea to eight consecutive league victories for the first time since 2010, but City have lost just one of their last 15 league games and have a point to prove about the rivals’ differing schedules.
While third-placed City have had the pressure of trying to qualify from a tough Champions League group, Chelsea have enjoyed the luxury of extra rest due to their failure to qualify for European competition.
“We’ll have played eight more games — terrible games — in the Champions League than Chelsea and Liverpool and we are there,” Guardiola said.
“That’s why the first part of the season is so satisfying. To still be with Liverpool and Chelsea when they don’t play in Europe is good for us.”
- Liverpool eye top spot -
A draw at City would give second-placed Liverpool the chance to go top if they win at Bournemouth on Sunday.
Jurgen Klopp’s side are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches and the German said: “It’s a good moment, but it’s difficult too because there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of games to play.
“We go now to Bournemouth, a small stadium, but very intense with a good team.”
Arsene Wenger is confident fourth-placed Arsenal will get back on track after their surprise League Cup exit when they face West Ham.
Wenger’s side were beaten 2-0 at home by Southampton in the quarter-finals on Tuesday, while West Ham also crashed out of the competition with a 4-1 thrashing at Manchester United.
Looking for a quick recovery, Wenger is confident Arsenal will banish the memory of the Cup disappointment, which ended their 19-game unbeaten run in all competitions.
“I don’t think I can moan about the momentum in the Premier League,” he said.
“I knew that in the League Cup that could happen, but it was more disappointing to lose the game than the run we have. We want to keep the run in the Premier League going now.”
Manchester United travel to Everton aiming to maintain the momentum of their midweek victory.
Mourinho’s team are 11 points behind Chelsea after winning just one of their last seven league games, but United midfielder Michael Carrick hasn’t given up hope of a successful season.
“You can’t beat that buzz of winning a big game,” Carrick said. “That is what keeps you going, having success and winning trophies.”
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)
Crystal Palace v Southampton, Manchester City v Chelsea (1230 GMT), Stoke v Burnley, Sunderland v Leicester, Tottenham v Swansea, West Brom v Watford, West Ham v Arsenal (1730 GMT)
Bournemouth v Liverpool (1330 GMT), Everton v Manchester United (1600 GMT)
Middlesbrough v Hull (2000 GMT)
© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse