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Conte finally has selection issues with Costa, Kante suspended

Middlesbrough v Chelsea - Premier League

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 20: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates victory with Diego Costa after the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Chelsea at Riverside Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

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LONDON (AP) Deprived of probably his two best players this season, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte finally has some selection issues to consider as the English Premier League leaders aim to extend their winning run to 12 games.

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Top scorer Diego Costa and midfield enforcer N’Golo Kante are both suspended for the home match against Bournemouth on Monday.

During Chelsea’s winning streak that started on Oct. 1 and has put the team six points clear in the standings, Conte has made a total of just six game-on-game changes in personnel and used only 13 players as starters. His goalkeeper, three-man defense and wing backs have remained unchanged throughout, for example.

Selecting a lineup has been pretty straightforward for Conte, until now.

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“For this reason, it’s a good test for us,” the Italian coach said Thursday. “It’s important for this test to evaluate the group situation, also to have the possibility to play some players who until now are not playing a lot or to find another solution.

“It’s important what my eye is seeing this week.”

Chelsea needs three more wins to break the Premier League record (13) for consecutive victories in a single season, held by the Arsenal team of 2001-02. For a coach in his first season in English soccer, it’s some achievement by Conte.

The hectic festive schedule is proving a headache for many Premier League teams, as they face three games in eight days, including two matches inside 48 hours in some cases.

Chelsea, however, has its three games over 10 days, and has a four-day break between its first and second games (Bournemouth on Dec. 26 and Stoke at home on Dec. 31) and another three days without a game until Tottenham away on Jan. 4.

Also helping is the fact that Conte’s men don’t have to leave London over the festive period.

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Conte gave his players three days off this week in a bid to manage the squad’s physical and mental fitness and after what he described as a “real intense period” of fixtures.

Yet, the schedule is Chelsea’s friend this season, given the team isn’t playing European competition and has already been eliminated from the League Cup.

If Conte stays loyal to the 3-4-3 formation that has brought Chelsea its 11 wins in a row, his central-midfield two will likely be Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic while Michy Batshuayi is expected to replace Costa as the striker.

Batshuayi’s only starts since joining from Marseille for 33 million pounds (then $44 million) in the offseason have come in the League Cup. All 10 of his appearances in the league have come as second-half substitutes, with the Belgium international scoring one league goal.

“It’s not easy to arrive in this league and play,” Conte said. “It’s difficult to adapt, this league is very tough and physical. I think Michy is working very well. We must work with him to help him to improve, and the next step is to play more.”