Tottenham coach Antonio Conte believes the decision to postpone last weekend's scheduled north London derby was "very, very strange", but Leicester City counterpart Brendan Rodgers appreciates the Premier League's caution.

Arsenal submitted their request to have the game called off due to a lack of first-team player availability.

But critics accused the club of exploiting the Premier League's rules in order to get out of games while players were absent through injury, suspension or Africa Cup of Nations duty.

Arsenal had only one confirmed positive COVID-19 case at the time of their application, but the Premier League deemed they were unable to meet the required number of available players (13 outfielders and a goalkeeper) despite their Under-23s managing to field a squad of 16 on Friday.

Spurs released a statement criticising the decision, and Conte has since commented in public for the first time.

"The club made a statement and it was very clear to show our disappointment," the Italian told reporters. "It was disappointing because we prepared the game to play against Arsenal and the decision to postpone the game was very, very strange.

"My feeling is that when there is a situation to play we have to play, not to postpone games for injuries, for international duty.

"I think we have a big problem to solve and that is COVID, but only about this situation can you decide to postpone, not for other situations.

"Honestly, it's my first time in my life – and I've had a bit of experience in football – to see this type of decision."

Frustrations relating to postponements had been building over the previous couple of weeks and they seemed to reach boiling point with the decision to call off the derby.

Much of the discontent relates to certain clubs' apparent reluctance to use younger players from their second or academy teams.

Leeds United were praised on Sunday for going ahead with their match away to West Ham and winning 3-2 despite seven of their nine substitutes having no prior Premier League experience at all – one of the two who had appeared in a top-flight game before had only a three-minute cameo to his name.

Premier League rules state Under-21 players must be deemed "appropriately experienced" in order to count towards top-flight eligibility criteria for postponement purposes, and Rodgers – whose Leicester face Spurs on Wednesday – feels this is the fairest approach for the mental well-being of youngsters.

"It depends on how you frame it," Rodgers responded when asked about the apparent under-utilisation of young players.

"We have young players coming in now like [Kiernan] Dewsbury-Hall, and his timeline is that he went out on loan.

"You have to be careful. Not every Under-23 player is ready for Premier League football and you don't want to destroy a career. Development is different for players. We will look to play young players at the right time, we have been able to do that in the FA Cup.

"The rules are clear. For the Premier League, you have to have 13 plus a goalkeeper, so there is enough clarity. It doesn't say the guys out have to be out with COVID. The rules are there and clear.

"We are clear on where we are now. We were shown in a managers' meeting that it will hit different areas at different times, and different parts of the country will be hit.

"Lots of players are injured because they are having to play more. The Premier League have tried to be as fair as they can, and then there's Under-23s if they are experienced enough.

"We played the FA Cup game, but then we couldn't play the next game because we didn't have the players.

"Everyone has an opinion, but unless you're inside a club and are privy to the injuries and COVID cases, then it's probably difficult to say [games shouldn't be postponed]. All the clubs are working to get the games on."

Antonio Conte is set to take charge of his first north London derby on Sunday.

We say "is set to" rather than "will" because there does appear to be the possibility of the game being postponed due to Arsenal's growing list of absences, with the club reportedly requesting for it to be called off.

The Gunners were without as many as nine first-team players for Thursday's EFL Cup semi-final first-leg draw with Liverpool, and Mikel Arteta intimated they have further issues as a result of that match.

But, for the moment, the game is planned to go ahead as normal and Conte will surely be eager for it to do so, with Arsenal's predicament seemingly giving him the best possible chance to right some previous wrongs…

CONTE'S ARSENAL HOODOO

When you consider how good Conte's Chelsea were, it seems quite remarkable he could have such a poor record against any team.

But during his time at Stamford Bridge, Conte won just one of eight games against the Gunners, or 12.5 per cent.

Among the clubs he has faced at least five times across his managerial career, Conte does not have a worse win rate against anyone.

Spurs can perhaps take solace in the fact they have not lost yet under the Italian in the Premier League, though if they do lose on Sunday, Conte will be the first Tottenham manager to suffer his first top-flight defeat in a north London derby since Ossie Ardiles in August 1993.

KEY MEN RELISH A DERBY

In Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, Tottenham have two players with a track record of impacting north London derbies.

Son has had a hand in five goals across his previous four meetings with Arsenal (three goals, two assists), while Kane is, of course, this fixture's all-time leading scorer with 11 strikes in 16 games.

Nevertheless, Arsenal may have some confidence in keeping Kane at bay at least given he has not scored in his past two derbies – failure again will make it his worst drought in the fixture.

Further to that, Kane's record of 0.35 non-penalty expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes is bettered by as many as 15 players this season (minimum 500 minutes played) and he is under-performing that in terms of non-penalty goals (0.19 per 90 mins), suggesting he may not be the Mr. Reliable he once was.

YOUNG GUNS MADE OF THE WRIGHT STUFF?

While Arsenal's squad may have a little less derby pedigree, it would be fair to say they have a greater presence of youthful exuberance, with young players playing a prominent role for Arteta.

Arguably chief among them are Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, who were both on the scoresheet when Arsenal beat Spurs 3-1 earlier this season.

No English player has scored in both north London derbies for Arsenal in the same year since, remarkably, Ian Wright in 1993-94.

Given the form of both players, there is a strong chance that run could end.

SAKA BACK ON TRACK

After dazzling at Euro 2020, some might have expected Saka to truly light up the Premier League this season. He perhaps has not quite reached that level, though his recent form has been excellent.

He has been involved in at least one goal in each of his previous five Premier League games, netting four and setting up a couple.

Should he continue that streak against Spurs – or whoever they play next if the game is postponed – he will be the youngest player in the competition's history to have a hand in a goal in six successive Premier League games.

Antonio Conte insists Chelsea have "created the gap" in quality between his former club and Tottenham ahead of their EFL Cup semi-final second leg.

Spurs were beaten 2-0 in the first leg at Stamford Bridge last week; Kai Havertz on target for the hosts before a Ben Davies own-goal.

The Blues have progressed from each of their last 13 two-legged ties after winning the first leg, last failing to do so against Liverpool in the 2006-07 Champions League semi-finals.

Meanwhile, Tottenham are looking to become only the second side – after Aston Villa in 1993-94 – to reach the EFL Cup showpiece after losing their semi-final first leg by more than one goal.

Following the defeat, Conte conceded the gulf in class by admitting there were no comparisons between the sides.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference, the Spurs head coach clarified those comments, acknowledging his former club are responsible for their superiority.

"When I speak about the gap; to reduce the gap, it means that I am not stupid to not understand the gap between the clubs," he said.

"It means that you have to improve the squad, the work and to have a project and vision. 

"The gap is a space that you have with other teams and I think that, in this moment, we are to work a lot to reduce this gap. 

"Chelsea work well, they win the Champions League and then invest a lot of money to improve their squad. This creates a gap, this is the truth. Chelsea have created this gap."

Conte also revealed that Tottenham are in negotiations over a new deal for club captain Hugo Lloris.

Now in his 10th season with Spurs, the goalkeeper's existing contract is due to expire at the end of the campaign, but the Italian is confident he will remain with the club.

"I think they have started talking," Conte added. 

"You know what I think of him, I have said previously he is our captain and a top goalkeeper. [He] has great experience and knows the club. 

"For me, he is an important player. I am not the person who renews contracts; that is the club, and they are the people that do this, but I am confident."

Antonio Conte has met with the Tottenham hierarchy to discuss January transfer plans, but also appreciates he must also focus on coaching and improving the players he already has.

The Spurs boss also appeared to deny speculation that Dutch forward Steven Bergwijn could be about to depart the club.

Speaking at a media conference ahead of Wednesday's EFL Cup semi-final second leg against Chelsea, with Spurs trailing 2-0 after the first leg, Conte confirmed he has met the club's owners and the managing director Fabio Paratici to talk over plans for the current transfer window.

"It was a good meeting," the former Inter manager confirmed. "The owner and Paratici they started together at the start of this season and I came in halfway. A good meeting to speak and to tell them my thoughts about the two months I spent in Tottenham.

"But what I want… I spoke with the club and I had my thoughts about the situation and this is the most important thing. Then the club has to decide the best way to go. I don’t have expectations. I am a coach and I know that we have to solve many problems.

"For me, in this moment, the best possible way is to get the best from my players and improve the squad... This is the only way I can go to improve the situation, to improve the squad. Then the club knows very well our situation and it has to take the best decision."

Conte was also asked about recent stories linking Bergwijn with a move to Ajax, and the Italian responded by seemingly suggesting the player is still a part of his immediate plans.

"Bergwijn, he knows very well what I think about him. I consider him a player that can play all three roles, as a number nine and number 10.

"In my period at Tottenham, he was injured for a long time, but I showed him that when he is in a good physical condition I gave him a chance. He is a Tottenham player and he is very close to coming back.

"After the game with Chelsea he can start a training session. I can count on him. He is a player with different characteristics than Harry [Kane], Son [Heung min] and [Lucas] Moura. He is a player we don’t have in our squad."

Conte also confirmed that centre-back Cristian Romero is close to returning after missing the last two months with a hamstring injury. 

Romero became the second-most expensive transfer in Spurs' history when he signed for a reported £47m from Atalanta in August after Tanguy Ndombele's £53.8m switch from Lyon in 2019.

"Today, Cristian had a little part of a training session with us," added Conte. "He's very close to coming back.

"We're talking about another important player for us. We lost him for almost two months and I think we faced this situation in the best possible way. Cristian for sure is an important player for us.

"Despite this, the players who played showed to be good and improved. For example, Sanchez is improving a lot. Now, Cristian is very close to coming back and being available."

Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte has suggested the club must match his ambition as he looks to improve Spurs.

Conte only signed a contract for a year and a half after taking over from Nuno Espirito Santo in November.

The former Inter coach believes that is not an issue, however, as he insisted he has joined Spurs to help build the club.

However, Conte – who left Inter last year after winning the title amid financial limitations – also implied that Tottenham must match his ambition in order to grow.

"I signed a contract for this season and next season," Conte told a news conference ahead of Spurs' FA Cup third-round tie with Morecambe.

"I think that we decided together, the club and I, to go for this decision. I think that I don't need a long contract to be sure to work for a club. I think that the club has to appreciate my job and then extend my contract, but only if I showed the club I deserve this.

"I'm not a coach that wants many years of a contract. Also, it's not fair, because I know very well I'm a top coach with an important salary for the club.

"I'm open to improve the Tottenham situation and I decided to sign a contract with this club and I'm available to give my opinion, to give my vision, and it won't be a problem for me, a short contract – only one year to go. It's OK because Tottenham has to be sure 120 per cent to continue to work with me.

"I'm happy to work with this group because they are giving me great availability. But at the same time, you know the club has to know my vision, has to know my opinion about the situation and especially what is our ambition."

Conte has overseen a turnaround in fortunes for Spurs, going unbeaten in his first eight Premier League games in charge, winning five of them.

Under the ex-Chelsea and Italy boss, Tottenham have scored 14 league goals, conceding just four times.

That is in contrast to 11 top-flight goals netted and 16 goals conceded across 10 games during Nuno's brief stint, with the Portuguese overseeing five wins and as many defeats.

 

Spurs are far more creative under Conte, averaging 11.5 chances per game compared to 7.1 under Nuno.

Their expected goals (xG) average per game has also doubled, from 1.0 to 2.0, while they are better defensively, facing on average 10 shots per match as opposed to 15, with their mean xGA (expected goals against) value dropping from 1.5 to 0.78.

"When I decided to sign with Tottenham, I know what happened recently in the story of the club," Conte said.

"When you arrive at a new club, you have to go into the situation to understand it very well and to know it very well.

"Outside you can only imagine. It's the same with the players. Outside, you can give an evaluation about a player and then I think when you are the coach of the player and you live with the player day by day, you understand everything about the player and I think it's the same for me.

"I am enjoying my time in Tottenham because I have found a group of players who have shown me a great availability, and they show me the will, the desire to improve in many aspects, and when you have this type of player you are happy."

Tottenham boss Antonio Conte fears Son Heung-min could be unavailable until after the next international break after the South Korea international picked up a muscle injury.

Son - who has made 21 appearances for Spurs in all competitions this season, registering eight goals and three assists - came off after 79 minutes of Wednesday's 2-0 EFL Cup semi-final first leg defeat against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, but Conte insists that was not because of an injury at the time.

Speaking at a news conference ahead of Sunday's FA Cup third-round tie against League One outfit Morecambe, the former Chelsea and Inter boss said the player felt a pain in his leg the following day and has had a scan to evaluate the damage.

"It was a strange situation," Conte told reporters. "Against Chelsea, I made two substitutions together, with Lucas Moura and then Son. But not for injury, the substitutions, but only to try to give them a bit of rest, 15 minutes of rest.

"Then the day after, he felt a bit of pain in his muscle, in his leg. He had a scan and now we have to make the right evaluation from the doctors. He has an injury.

"I don't know, but probably he will stay without training sessions until the end of this cycle, before the international break."

The next international break is scheduled for the end of this month, meaning that Son would be unable to play for Tottenham again until February.

It will be a big blow to Conte, with Son having created more chances (33) than any other Spurs player this season, ahead of Lucas Moura (27), Harry Kane (21), Sergio Reguilon (20) and Emerson Royal (18).

Conte was also asked about whether there have been discussions about potential incomings in the January transfer window, to which he responded: "The first person who wants to improve the situation is for sure our owner.

"I will have time to speak, also with the people who work within the club to try to understand well the situation, to understand if there is the opportunity to improve this squad in this transfer market. But I think we will do the same thing that all of the teams are doing in these days.

"We have two ways to improve the situation, one is to improve the level of the players that we have in our squad. Another is to implement new players and improve the quality of the squad. But, as you know very well, January is not easy for anyone. So we'll see what happens."

Antonio Conte pulled no punches in his assessment of Tottenham after losing 2-0 to Chelsea in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final, acknowledging "there's no comparison" between the two teams.

Spurs were well beaten at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, with two defensively poor goals allowing Chelsea to build up what proved to be an unassailable lead before half-time.

Japhet Tanganga first saw his pass cut out by Marcos Alonso, who fed Kai Havertz to open the scoring five minutes in.

Tanganga then saw his unchallenged headed clearance strike Ben Davies and go into his own goal, with Spurs failing to even muster a single shot before the break.

Conte altered his system at half-time, changing to a back four and bringing on Tanguy Ndombele in midfield – Spurs were better, but their five shots was still only a little over half of Chelsea's nine in the second period.

According to Spurs' expected goals (xG) of 0.37, they would have been extremely fortunate if they had managed to breach Kepa Arrizabalaga's goal, while Chelsea's 2.2 accentuated just how much more threatening – and clinical – they were.

For Conte, it was a brutal reminder of how far Spurs still have to go to be able to consider themselves competitive rivals of the likes of Chelsea, whom he was facing at Stamford Bridge for the first time since leaving them in July 2018.

"It was a difficult game, difficult from the start," Conte told Sky Sports. "Chelsea showed to be much better than us.

"The first half, we struggled a lot from the start but we know that we are talking about one of the best teams in Europe, in the world.

"Last season they won the Champions League. If you compare the two teams, there is not a comparison.

"We are talking about a team ready to win – we have seen the difference between the two teams.

"It is not easy to play at Stamford Bridge, the way they were very concentrated, they won the ball every time and then we conceded also a goal [that was] unlucky.

"When you start the game and after a few minutes they score, for sure the game becomes very difficult, but I know the situation, it's very clear in this moment there is an important gap [between Spurs and the best teams].

"We have to try to fight to stay in the league in a good position, but if we think we are close, I think we are not in the right way."

The defeat and Conte's scathingly honest appraisal of Spurs' situation might be hard to stomach for some, but the Italian reiterated the need for patience and highlighted the importance of not sugarcoating anything for his team.

"There is a lot of jobs to do," he continued. "In this moment, it is very difficult to understand which part you take to improve because there is a lot of situations to improve.

"We need time, and patience. Everyone has to have patience, because Tottenham in the last years the level has dropped a lot and now we have to fight to win every game.

"I started my experience with Tottenham and every game we have fought, and now we struggle to win the game, it wasn't a game you could say it was easy.

"We have to be humble, to understand the situation at the moment and continue to work to improve our players, then we will see. It is not simple to say go in the transfer market, in January it won't be easy and now the most important thing is to be focused and work to improve.

"The results in the league were good, we reached the semi-final in the EFL Cup and for Tottenham at this moment that is a good target.

"I am always very honest with my players, we have to clap the performance of Chelsea. I like to tell the truth and with a good lie you don't go anywhere. They showed to be a really good team, much better than us.

"We have to try to change this situation, slowly, slowly. It is impossible to change the situation in one or two transfer windows.

"There is a lot of jobs to do in Tottenham and we need a lot of time. It is important for patience and for me also to have patience."

Chelsea put one foot in the EFL Cup final thanks to a comfortable 2-0 victory over Tottenham in Wednesday's semi-final first leg on a chastening return to Stamford Bridge for Antonio Conte.

Thomas Tuchel, seemingly eager to put recent indiscretions to one side after an apology, reinstated Romelu Lukaku to his starting XI, though Chelsea's victory arguably said more about Spurs' defence than the hosts' attack.

The Blues were ahead inside five minutes as Kai Havertz punished a Japhet Tanganga error at the back, and a comical Ben Davies own goal had Chelsea cruising at the interval.

Spurs improved somewhat in the second 45 minutes but were fortunate not to concede more goals, with Timo Werner spurning a couple of excellent opportunities, perhaps giving Conte's men a lifeline for the return leg.

Lukaku should have made a swift impact when released into the box in the first minute, only to bizarrely opt for a cut-back that went to no one.

Spurs gifted them another chance soon after, though, and Chelsea took it – Marcos Alonso cut out Tanganga's dreadful pass and fed Havertz, who found the net despite Davinson Sanchez's best efforts.

The dominant home side made it 2-0 just past the half-hour mark, Tanganga's unchallenged headed clearance bouncing back off Davies and going in.

Spurs, who introduced Tanguy Ndombele at half-time, were brighter early in the second period, with Harry Kane testing Kepa Arrizabalaga via a 20-yard free-kick.

Still, the best chances went the way of Chelsea and Werner, who first shot agonisingly wide and then saw Hugo Lloris just about reach his lobbed effort after an exquisite pass from Hakim Ziyech.

A late Ndombele effort from Bryan Gil's pull-back was then well saved by Kepa as the Blues kept their clean sheet intact.

What does it mean? Chelsea in control of the tie

The last trophy Spurs won was via this competition in 2008 – on the evidence of this first leg, they will not be ending that drought in next month's final.

Sure, there was undoubtedly an improvement from Spurs in the second half here, but they could not really have gotten any worse – they failed to register a single shot in the first 45 minutes. Even then, Chelsea were still on another level after the break.

Conte has received a lot of praise for the impact he has had on Spurs in just a couple of months at the helm, but this was a reminder of how far they still have to go.

Fruitful from the flanks

Alonso and Ziyech were both impressive out wide for the Blues. The Spaniard was deployed as a left-back rather than wing-back but still got forward to great effect, making the interception and playing the pass for the first goal – that was one of three key passes. The only player to register more (four) was Ziyech on the right, whose use of the ball was often excellent in the final third.

You've been Tangangoed!

This was a day to forget for Tanganga. It was his poor pass to Emerson Royal that was intercepted in the build-up to the first goal, and then his header went in off Davies for the second when he was under virtually no pressure.

What's next?

These two will resume hostilities next Wednesday in the second leg at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but before that, both teams are in FA Cup action. Chelsea host Chesterfield on Saturday, while Spurs welcome Morecambe to north London the following day.

If Thomas Tuchel is after any advice on how to deal with the Romelu Lukaku issue, the Chelsea head coach could do worse than to have a brief word with the man he will come face-to-face with on Wednesday.

Under now-Tottenham boss Antonio Conte across two seasons with Inter, Lukaku enjoyed the best form of his career, scoring and assisting a combined 81 goals in 95 appearances.

Lukaku has not been as prolific since returning to Stamford Bridge in August, finding the net seven times in 18 games, and already his future at Chelsea has been called into question following an explosive interview in the Italian press that was published last week.

The Belgium international was subsequently dropped for Chelsea's crucial clash with Liverpool on Sunday but is in line return for the EFL Cup semi-final first leg with Spurs after holding clear-the-air talks with his manager, meaning a possible reunion with Conte.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how Conte got Lukaku out of the "deep hole" he found himself in at Manchester United, as the striker himself put it, and explores how Tuchel can go about getting the most out of Chelsea's all-time record purchase.


ROM AMONG EUROPE'S ELITE

As well as declaring an unhappiness with his role at Chelsea and expressing a desire to return to Inter as part of his 30-minute chat with Sky Sport Italia, Lukaku also opened up on the "hurt" he felt when Conte departed San Siro.

That is no surprise given the Belgian's form between arriving at Inter in August 2019 and departing two years later. 

The 47 Serie A goals scored by Lukaku in 72 games under Conte is his best return under any of the 11 managers he has played for at club level, followed by the 43 netted in 103 Premier League games when working with now-national team coach Roberto Martinez at Everton.

That includes a return of 24 goals in 2020-21 alone, on top of 11 assists, as he became the first player to score 20-plus goals and set up 10 or more in a single Serie A season since Opta started to record such data in 2004-05.

Indeed, only Cristiano Ronaldo (83), Kylian Mbappe (97), Lionel Messi (106) and Robert Lewandowski (121) were directly involved in more goals in all competitions among players from Europe's top five leagues than Lukaku's 81 across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

 

FLOPPED IN FAVOURED FORMATION

That impressive form helped Inter end their 11-year wait for Scudetto success last time out, a year on from falling just short in the Europa League with defeat in the final, but Lukaku was not alone in inspiring the Nerazzurri to glory.

Alongside him was Lautaro Martinez, who was very much the perfect foil in Conte's preferred 3-5-2 formation, which the Italian used 31 times in 38 league matches last season.

It is a formation Tuchel has used on only two occasions in the Premier League this term – in September's 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City and the 1-0 victory at Brentford three weeks later. 

Lukaku started both games alongside Timo Werner and Chelsea's tally of five shots against City and five against Brentford are the fewest the Blues have managed in any league game this term – Lukaku responsible for just one of those – as were the four and two chances created respectively.

While City's quality and dominance of the ball must be factored in, Lukaku's minimal involvement against Brentford was surprising – and surely no coincidence.

That west London derby blank came in the midst of a 10-game run without a goal for Lukaku, not helped by niggling injuries and a COVID lay-off, which he has since put an end to with three goals in four matches.

Chelsea's formation in those three most recent games Lukaku has scored in, incidentally, came with three attackers spread across the frontline. And there was one other common denominator, too: Mason Mount being on the field.

 

MOUNT TO PLAY THE MARTINEZ ROLE?

Mount assisted Lukaku's most recent goal in a 1-1 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion from a corner and the pair have combined to create nine chances in total for one another in the league this term, making it easily Chelsea's most dangerous partnership.

No Chelsea player has combined more regularly with Lukaku than Mount, with the pair linking up 10.06 times per 90 minutes so far this season. While that may not appear a huge amount on the face of it, next on that list is Mateo Kovacic with 6.45 combined passes between himself and Lukaku per 90.

However, Mount still has some way to go if he is to match the 54 combined chances created for each other in Serie A by Lukaku and Martinez in their two seasons used in tandem at Inter, which equated to nine assists.

Lukaku's relationship with Mount does provide some promise, though, as does the Anderlecht academy product's goalscoring performances in his most recent two outings prior to being dropped against Liverpool, showing Chelsea do not necessarily have to replicate Inter's system to help their main man thrive.

 

TUCHEL WILL NOT SHIFT

Lukaku is averaging fewer passes, overall touches and touches in the opposition box this season compared to last, while also shooting less frequently, dribbling less and creating fewer chances for others.

Yet instead of attempting to find the perfect formula and personnel for Lukaku, Tuchel will not shift from his own way of thinking.

"We cannot just play like Inter in the hope that will bring the most out of Lukaku. The system they played not only suited Romelu but also Lautaro Martinez and others. If you don't have five players you can't play five defenders," Tuchel said on the eve of the Tottenham tie.

"It works both ways. It is more about principles of how we play. I feel he is more impatient than anything else. He wants to be involved more, wants more big chances. 

"Like with every transfer, you have to accept there is a change of environment, culture, team-mates, playing style, belief. He's not the first player to take time, but even while doing it he was scoring goals."

And maybe Tuchel has a point. After all, for all the talk of Lukaku's struggles and unhappiness, he is scoring at an almost identical rate to Cristiano Ronaldo (0.54 goals per 90 minutes compared to 0.56), and remains one of Europe's most prolific strikers of the past decade.

Now back from injury and a team exile brought on by his own actions, only Lukaku can ensure he avoids falling down another deep hole that he may this time be unable to escape.

Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel refuses to change his playing style to suit striker Romelu Lukaku, insisting "we cannot just play like Inter".

Lukaku caused a stir in a controversial interview released on Thursday and Friday, which was initially recorded three weeks ago, as he expressed his unhappiness with his current status at Chelsea.

He also spoke glowingly of former head coach Antonio Conte, who he worked with at Inter, while revealing he would like to return to the Serie A outfit one day.

Tuchel punished Lukaku for his comments by dropping him from his squad to face Liverpool before the pair held talks on Monday and they looked to put the matter aside the following day.

Lukaku has since come out to apologise to all involved at Chelsea, perhaps much to the relief of Tuchel, but the German insisted he will not change his playing style just to suit the forward.

Asked about Lukaku's comments on Conte and Chelsea's playing style, Tuchel said: "It works both ways and we do it with every single player, we have a certain formation and principles of how we play.

"I feel he is more impatient than anything else, he wants to be involved more and have big chances more.

"It is hard for him to accept that sometimes the grass does not grow faster when you cut it – in every transfer you have to accept there is a change of environment, culture, club and team-mates.

"There's a change of playing style and there's a change of league, he's not the first player to take some time - he was already scoring while settling down but we were still adapting to each other.

"We cannot just play like Inter plays and hope that will bring the best out of Romelu. They had a fantastic season because Conte is a fantastic coach.

"But I think the system he played at Inter did not only suit Romelu and the second striker Lautaro Martinez, it also fitted the entire squad. If you don't have five defenders you cannot play with a back five, it's as easy as that.

"The coaches do what they have to do, Conte played in 3-5-2 in the build-up at Chelsea and 3-4-3 at Inter. Obviously he is adapting to his players and from there implanting his ideas – that is exactly what I do as well."

The Belgian scored 47 times in 72 league outings with Conte at Inter – his best such tally under any manager – for a return of 0.72 goals per 90 minutes.

That compares to 0.54 goals per 90 minutes for Chelsea across his 13 games since returning, with the striker failing to assist a goal as of yet.

But Tuchel added that no player operating under his stewardship will be treated any differently to the other, with he and his backroom staff understanding it is their job to maximise the potential of their stars.

"It is of course for us to bring out the best of him, find the right position for him and the right connections to understand which movements and playing styles fit to each other," he continued.

"This is what we do for every single player, it does not matter if the player is expensive or a free agent, or if he's old or young, it does not change.

"In the end it is on the player, we can just help to fulfil his potential. Sometimes it is faster or slower, but everyone does their very best to bring out the full potential – we are still convinced there is room for improvement.

"That's why I was surprised, I don't feel him unhappy, not at all. I was not at all offended as a coach, that's why I don't see a big change in our relationship coming."

Chelsea face Conte's new side Tottenham on Wednesday as the pair do battle in the EFL Cup semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge.

Indeed, Conte previously managed the Blues between 2016 and 2018, winning the Premier League and the FA Cup, and Tuchel was incredibly complimentary of the Italian manager.

"He puts them in positions where they are confident so they can fulfil their potential, this is what Antonio Conte is doing on the domestic level to an outstanding impact," he continued.

"I have nothing but respect for him and I really love to watch his teams play, it will be a pleasure to play against him. We're fully aware how successful he was with Chelsea, I have no doubt how successful he will be with Tottenham.

"I met him once in a friendly match and we had a nice talk during the warm-up. He knows I appreciate a lot what he is doing, his style and all his energy into his team.

"You can clearly see that in any club that he works, you see it is a Conte team as they defend and attack with all the intensity.

"His teams are very hard to beat, it has always been like this and it will be like that on Wednesday."

Antonio Conte labelled his Tottenham appointment as a signal of intent to their competitors and to Harry Kane.

Kane endured a tough start to the 2021-22 campaign, scoring just one goal in his first 13 league games after seemingly having his head turned amid interest from Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.

Spurs, without their talisman Kane firing, suffered in the league and were ninth after five top-flight losses in seven games before the former Inter head coach took charge in the wake of Nuno Espirito Santo's sacking.

They have since appeared revitalised under Conte, who set and then extended a club record as he remains unbeaten in his opening eight league games.

It is a run which has propelled Tottenham to sixth, two points behind fourth-placed rivals Arsenal while still boasting two games in hand.

Kane has also started to find the net, managing three goals in his last four Premier League games, and Conte outlined how Spurs' standpoint with their striker during the interest from City displayed their desire to build something special.

"I followed the situation about Harry and I have seen what happened and what could happen," he said. "The club decided to keep Harry in the team and it was a great choice of the owner. 

"You are showing you want to continue to build something important around one of the best players in the team.

"Harry is a player of Tottenham and continues to be one of the best in the team. He's a point of reference in the dressing room.

"I think Tottenham wanted to bring me here to send a signal outside and also to our players."

The England captain has won the Premier League Golden Boot award three times but has never lifted any trophies with Spurs during his time at the club.

Questions have been raised as to whether the striker will chase silverware and leave his boyhood club, though Conte feels he understands why Kane is yet to move on.

"Yeah I understand Harry's situation because for sure when you finish your career you can see your appearances and the team where you played but at the same time it's right also to see what you have won," he continued. 

"I think that this is important for top players because sometimes it happens that important players finish their career with a couple of titles and others below them have more.

"We are talking about a really good person and a good man. This is the most important thing, I knew the situation in the summer but then when Harry decided to stay I had found a player totally involved in the project. 

"I'm happy to have him in my team, we're talking about a top player and a top striker. He knows well my opinion but I repeat I'm very happy to work with him."

 

Conte will be hoping Kane can blast Spurs past his former side Chelsea in the EFL Cup semi-final when the first leg takes place on Wednesday.

Both of Conte's previous two losses in the competition have come against London sides, losing to West Ham in 2016-17 and to Arsenal over two legs in the 2017-18 semi-final.

While Spurs have progressed from six of their last eight EFL Cup semi-final ties, Conte believes there is a sizeable rebuilding job to do after the departure of Mauricio Pochettino, who guided Tottenham to the Champions League final in 2018-19.

"I have to be honest, if we have to compare this Tottenham and in the past I think in the past Tottenham was a team with many players with more experience in the league," he added.

"They had good momentum in the past to try and win something. Now, I think we're in a moment when we're starting again.

"We lost many players and now there are young players you have to wait. To get the right mentality, to win, you must have the right mentality. 

"It means you must be focused every day. You have to think football more than two or three hours in your day.

"You make yourself to be a winner but you need time and people that transfer you the right sensation and thoughts every day - but you need time.

"I think Mauricio did a fantastic job as he took a group of young players and they grew and became a contender for the title. I remember at Chelsea they fought until the end with us and Leicester [City]. 

"The level now has dropped a bit as players left and now we have to try to have the time and patience to build again a good situation."

Tottenham boss Antonio Conte believes his former side Chelsea are "more ready" to win trophies than his current employers.

Conte returned to London in early November and remains unbeaten in a club-record eight league games since his arrival, pushing Spurs up to sixth and just two points behind fourth-placed Arsenal while still boasting two games in hand.

The former Inter head coach also oversaw a 2-1 EFL Cup quarter-final win over West Ham, teeing up a double-header with Thomas Tuchel's side for a place in the final at Wembley.

Spurs have progressed from six of their last eight EFL Cup semi-final ties, failing only in 2006-07 against Arsenal and 2018-19 versus Chelsea, but Conte believes his former club are better prepared for success currently.

"I think that for everyone it's always very important to win trophies – for the club, for the players, for the managers," Conte told reporters at Monday's pre-match news conference. 

"On one hand, I have to tell you this. On the other, I think you have to build to win trophies. You can win trophies by speaking and saying you want to win. But then you have to be good and build something ready to win.

"I think at this moment, Chelsea is more ready than us to win. They won last season the Champions League. 

"I think we have a lot of space for improvement, to be a team with an aspiration to win. Then for sure, we'll do everything to reach the final of this trophy.

"But I repeat: to use this verb or word 'to win' is more simple than winning because to win you have to build something important, be solid, have an important squad. Then you're ready to win."

 

Conte enjoyed a fruitful spell in charge of Chelsea, leading the Blues to the 2016-17 Premier League title in his first season at the helm before triumphing in the FA Cup the following season.

He then joined Inter, where he again won another league title as he ended the Nerazzurri's 10-year wait for the Scudetto, before returning to England to manage Spurs.

After numerous successes across varying countries and with numerous teams, Conte feels he has nothing to prove as he prepares to return to Stamford Bridge in the first leg of the semi-final on Wednesday.

"I have to thank Chelsea because they gave me the possibility to work in England and have my first experiences in England," he added. "Now, for sure, I'm the manager of Tottenham and I want to give this club 100 per cent and more to try to improve the team. 

"It'll be good and for sure I'll have emotion to come back to Stamford Bridge. We did a really good job and I think in my position I mustn't prove anything to anyone. 

"I'm a manager that has experience and continues to have experience in my career and do important jobs at other teams."

Antonio Conte remains hopeful that Tottenham and Hugo Lloris will be able to reach an agreement over a new contract for the Frenchman.

Lloris, 35, has entered the final six months of his contract and is now able to discuss an end-of-season free transfer with foreign clubs.

One of those he has been linked with is boyhood club Nice, where Lloris came through the academy and then spent three years in the first team before making the move to Lyon in 2008.

Lloris joined Spurs in 2012, and helped the club become a regular in the Champions League under Mauricio Pochettino, who guided them to the final of that competition in 2018-19.

The shot-stopper was made Tottenham captain in 2015, while he has worn the armband for his country since 2012, leading Les Bleus to World Cup glory in 2018.

But while Lloris has previously been maligned for being error prone, he does appear to have improved in that regard in the past few seasons.

Between 2015-16 and the end the 2018-19 Premier League season, Lloris' 25 errors leading to shots equated to 0.18 per 90 minutes – among goalkeepers to play at least 3,500 minutes in that time, only Asmir Begovic averaged more errors (0.2) each game.

Since then, he's only committed three and none of those have been this season – indeed, his eight clean sheets in 2021-22 is bettered by just Ederson (11), Aaron Ramsdale and Alisson (both nine), though Lloris' five since Conte's first game in charge is not improved on by anyone.

This season, only five goalkeepers (minimum 200 minutes played) boast a better save percentage than Lloris (71.01 per cent), and Conte is convinced an agreement can be found to take him into an 11th year at the club.

Speaking after Spurs' dramatic late 1-0 win at Watford, Conte told reporters: "You can see the level of the keeper in these circumstances, when, for the whole game, [Lloris] didn't make a save, but he continued to be focused for the team.

"For me, that's very important. The 'keeper has to follow the game and not only stay on the goal line to make saves.

"Hugo showed [on Saturday] that he's top and he's always focused.

"For us, he's very important, and I'm sure that in a short time he can find a [contract] solution with the club, because he loves Tottenham and Tottenham loves him."

Lloris is already the goalkeeper with the most Premier League appearances for Spurs (316), 76 more than Ian Walker.

Manchester City picked up from where they left off in 2021 by battling to a late 2-1 win over Arsenal, extending their lead at the Premier League summit.

A Riyad Mahrez penalty and a last-gasp strike from Rodri cancelled out Bukayo Saka's first-half opener after Gabriel Magalhaes received a needless red card for the Gunners in an action-packed game – the first top-flight match of 2022.

City's 11th league win in a row means they end New Year's Day with an 11-point advantage at the top, a tally bettered by only two clubs in the competition's history on January 1 – Manchester United in 1993-94 and City themselves in 2017-18 (both 12 points).

There were also victories for Tottenham and West Ham, the London pair seeing off Watford and Crystal Palace respectively to remain in firm contention for a top-four finish.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of Opta data from Saturday's action. 

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester City: Leaders recover to stretch winning run against Gunners

Saka's opening goal against City was only the second the Citizens have conceded in the first half of a Premier League game this season, and the first such goal they have shipped on their travels since May.

That was the England international's sixth league goal of the season and was the 36th goal scored by a player aged 21 or under for Arsenal in the English top flight since Mikel Arteta's first game on Boxing Day 2019 – eight more than any other team.

Mahrez converted a contentiously awarded penalty shortly before the hour mark at Emirates Stadium, the Algeria international scoring for a fifth game running in all competitions, and Gabriel's second yellow card – 78 seconds after his first – swung the game in City's favour.

That was Arsenal's 100th red card in the Premier League era, making them the first side to reach that milestone, with Everton (99), Newcastle United (90) and Chelsea (82) next on the list.

Rodri completed the turnaround with City's latest winning goal in a league game since May 2018 (92:28) as the Citizens made it 10 successive top-flight victories over the Gunners, an opponent Pep Guardiola has yet to lose against in the league in 12 encounters.

Watford 0-1 Tottenham: Sanchez stings Hornets in late Spurs win

Tottenham also left it late to overcome Watford and make it eight Premier League games without defeat under Antonio Conte, extending the longest unbeaten start by a Spurs boss in league competition.

Davinson Sanchez made the breakthrough with 95 minutes and 45 seconds played, with that the latest winning goal Spurs have scored in the top flight since Opta started recording such data from 2006-07.

Watford dug deep but could not quite hold on for a valuable point, meaning they have now lost more Premier League matches (nine) since Claudio Ranieri took charge in October than any other side in the division.

Sanchez's goal was his second in five Premier League matches for Spurs, which is more than he had netted in his first 108 in the competition (one), with the defender heading in from a Son Heung-min free-kick.

Watford boss Ranieri has now lost each of his last five Premier League games against Italian managers, whereas compatriot Conte has never lost against a fellow Italian in the competition in six meetings, winning all but one of those.

Crystal Palace 2-3 West Ham: Hammers survive Olise-inspired scare

Palace fell just short of pulling off a remarkable comeback as they lost a home league match on New Year's Day for the first time in their history, with this their 14th such match.

Michail Antonio's close-range finish and a Manuel Lanzini double gave West Ham a commanding three-goal lead, the latter having now scored 52 per cent of his 25 Premier League goals in London derbies (13) – the highest percentage of any player to have scored at least 20 times in the competition.

Michael Olise made a huge difference from the bench by setting up Odsonne Edouard and then scoring a second for Palace late on, making him the first Eagles player to score and assist as a substitute in the Premier League.

But the visitors held on to ensure boss David Moyes made it six straight away league wins against Palace as a manager, defeating a different coach on each occasion during that perfect run (Alan Smith, Iain Dowie, Tony Pulis, Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson and now Patrick Vieira).

Antonio Conte insisted Tottenham have room for improvement if they are to enjoy future success after his side edged past Watford.

Spurs have yet to lose in eight Premier League games under Conte, extending the longest unbeaten start by a Tottenham manager in league competition.

It seemed for large parts on Saturday that Spurs would have to settle for consecutive draws as Daniel Bachmann repeatedly thwarted the likes of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min at Vicarage Road.

However, Davinson Sanchez headed home Spurs' latest ever winning Premier League goal since Opta began recording data (95:45) as he rose the highest to seal all three points for the visitors in a 1-0 win.

Victory over Claudio Ranieri's struggling side moves Spurs within two points of fourth-placed Arsenal, who have played two games more, but Conte still wants more from his side.

He told Sky Sports: "It is important to get three points. We know we have to suffer to get points. We are building a team to try to be competitive in the future but we know we have to be competitive in this season too.

"It is important to be humble, to fight and to suffer. I think everything can improve.

"It was difficult because we didn't score but created chances and when you find an opponent who is well organised it is not simple.

"But when you score the game changes and you find spaces to attack. I am happy with the commitment and effort from the players. We were a bit tired but I wish the world to my friend Claudio Ranieri the best because [Watford] deserve something."

Conte has never lost a Premier League match against an Italian manager (W5 D1), with three wins to his name against Ranieri.

The former Inter head coach expressed his satisfaction with the performance of his side as he commented on how difficult the busy festive period has been.

He added to BBC's Match of the Day: "To play so many games in a few days is not easy. This was the fifth game in 13 days and if you think we played almost with the same players, this period is busy but at the same time we try to get a result because it is very important, three points is very important.

"We have to improve the last pass, in the first half it was 29 crosses and no goals, it is important for us to improve the quality in the last pass because that gives you the possibility to score."

Before the Watford clash, Conte called for patience as he warned Champions League football will not be sealed with a couple of months of work and one transfer window.

But Conte feels the best way for Spurs to succeed in January is to keep playing the way they are doing, as opposed to focusing on various needs in the transfer market.

"Honestly, when Tottenham put me in charge, I asked for time to make my evaluation about the squad, now I did and for sure we will have a meeting with the club," he continued.

"It is important always to be honest, to understand where we are at in this moment, which is our point of start and then I will see. January is not simple, but maybe we will see what happens.

"We have to continue to work in this way and these players are giving me everything, great commitment and trust – the best buy in January is to continue this way. Then we will see what are our intentions are."

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