December 25, 2014

As Antonio Conte prepares to make his coaching debut for Chelsea, perhaps no other manager in the Premier League is feeling the kind of pressure the Italian carries on his shoulders.

The scrutiny from Chelsea fans and ownership begins Monday night when they host West Ham United to conclude the first week of league play.

With spirits high and a desire to repeat their 2014-15 top-flight crown the goal, Chelsea endured the worst title defence in Premier League history by going 12-14-12 to finish 10th. The tumultuous season included the sacking of enigmatic coach José Mourinho and nothing short of a player revolt during one stretch.

Conte, the former Juventus and Italian national team boss, agreed to take the Chelsea job in April amidst the club's stretch of two wins over the final 10 fixtures. With more than 180 coaching victories and winning percentage above 55.0, Conte has a track record of success but knows wins will come with cohesion and that he might have little room for error under impatient owner Roman Abramovich.

"My target is to become a team," he told Chelsea's official website. "My experience as a player and a manager teaches me if you want to fight for the title you must be a team inside and outside of the pitch. It's important to understand this and transfer this thought on to the players.

"We must become as a family. This is the key to switch from last season. If we don't understand this it is no good."

The Blues were more of a dysfunctional family in 2015-16, but seem poised to forget about the past and live for the present.

"At the moment it's very difficult and dangerous to say anything about the future because we know how difficult the league is," defender Branislav Ivanovic said. "We can promise to give everything in each game, we can improve and we will improve.

"How far can we go? I think we need to take it step by step."

After scoring 20 league goals a season earlier, Diego Costa managed 12 while Eden Hazard seemed uninterested most of the way while registering just four - 10 fewer than in '14-15. Getting more out of Hazard and fellow veteran Cesc Fabregas will be imperative.

Improving a backfield that contributed to the side's 53 goals allowed last season is a must, but those responsible for most of the shortcomings - Cesar Azpilicueta, John Terry, Gary Cahill and Ivanovic- appear set to be grouped again. Terry (head), however, seems doubtful for the opener.

Chelsea was unable to nab talented defender John Stones from Everton, instead moving to Manchester City.

Adding midfielder N'Golo Kante from defending champion Leicester City for around £30 million was a nice addition and they continue to pursue Everton star Romelu Lukaku.

"Now it's time to focus on West Ham," Azpilicueta said. "We are excited."

So too should West Ham, who has a busy start to the season with this contest, a date with Astra Giurgiu in an Europa League first-leg match Thursday and the opening of their new home at Olympic Stadium on Aug. 21 against Bournemouth.

The Hammers enjoyed a strong '15-16 campaign, finishing seventh with 62 points and earning that aforementioned Europa qualifying berth.

"We want to start the season really well, but we know it is going to be a difficult game," newcomer Andre Ayew told West Ham's official website. "We are playing away from home but it is not impossible for us to get a good result.

"This club has a lot of ambition and I want to be a part of that."

Coming off a 12-goal season for Swansea City, Ayew and his team-record £20 million signing joins an east London squad that ranked among the league leaders with 65 goals.

"I am really happy to be at West Ham," Ayew said. "I had a discussion with the manager and he made me understand why he wanted me. I spoke to a few players already here who had great things to say about the manager."

That manager, Slaven Bilić, hopes Ayew can take some of the offencive pressure off Andy Carroll, who tied for the team lead with nine league goals.

West Ham went 7-7-5 away from their final season at Upton Park, and drew Chelsea 2-2 at the Bridge on March 19. Fabregas scored twice while Carroll netted one for the Hammers, who are 0-3-7 in their last 10 at Chelsea.

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