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Antonio Conte was painting a grim picture. Chelsea, a club with a billionaire owner and record revenue in 2016/17, were no longer able to compete with richer, more powerful clubs.

The irony of the Italian's claim may not be lost on Blues fans. It wasn't so long ago that no side in Europe could compete financially with the west London outfit. Chelsea would spend what they wanted on who they wanted and didn't think about the consequences.

Spend £30million on an ageing Andriy Shevchenko? Sure, why not. What about £50million on a fading Fernando Torres? Worth the gamble. And don't forget the £15million paid to bring Manchester United flop Juan Sebastián Verón to Stamford Bridge – he would play just 13 games for the club.

But Chelsea have changed their policy over the past two years, perhaps due to Roman Abramovich losing $820million in 2016. They now look to generate funds through player sales before spending heavily in a now inflated transfer market.

Want to bring in Álvaro Morata for £60million, then Diego Costa has to be sold for £50million; sign Tiemoué Bakayoko for £35million, sell Nemanja Matić for £40million first.

From a purely business perspective, it is sound logic. It's why Chelsea made £16million profit last season despite not competing in the Champions League for the first time in the Abramovich era.

But logic in the current transfer market is in short supply. And it's why the Blues are finding it harder to compete with Manchester United and Manchester City. It's an uncomfortable truth for Chelsea supporters but one Conte explained well this week.

“In this moment there are two teams in this league who are ‘top',” the Italian said.

“The others have to fight for a place in the Champions League. Last season we did a fantastic job, a little miracle. What happened [at Chelsea] three, eight or ten years ago was totally different. Now we have to fight. We have to fight with our work.

“Last season we won the title and reached the FA Cup final and we finished with a £50million profit [in player sales]. In the past, this had never happened.”

Conte added: “It's not simple to think about [finishing above them] because these teams continue to improve and invest a lot of money.

“If you continue to have this type of gap, these two big clubs can become seriously dangerous for other teams in the world. These two teams are very strong already and want to invest.”

Conte was speaking after Alexis Sánchez joined Manchester United from Arsenal. Chelsea were linked with a move to the 29-year-old earlier this month but the Blues were never even in the race.

The Chilean was demanding a weekly wage of at least £350,000, some reports even suggested it was as absurd £500,000-a-week. They are figures Chelsea, in theory could match, the club choose not to, however.

Manchester United could afford to pay Sánchez what he wanted because of their huge revenue streams. The Red Devils have over 60 official partners, including a noodle partner, a former shoes partner and a tractor partner. There is no commercial avenue the club aren't willing to explore.

Manchester City's wealth is far less organic but just as effective in the transfer market. With the club's owner Sheikh Mansour, who has a net worth of £17billion, capable of absorbing losses, the current Premier League leaders can spend big and worry about the balance sheet later.

“If you want the best, you have to spend a lot of money.” Conte stated. “Otherwise you have to go in the middle and spend £20-30million.”

At this moment, that bracket is where Chelsea are operating. Only Morata was signed for more than £40million in the summer, the likes of Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta came in for fees equal or less than £35million.

Ross Barkley arrived early in January for £15million too, while Emerson Palmieri and Edin Džeko may join in a combined deal worth around £50million. So the Blues are happy to spend money, but not in excess. They're searching for value in a market where fees are spiralling out of control.

It's admirable but perhaps naive. City's squad is arguably the best in the top flight and they're ready to spend to enhance it. José Mourinho is also putting together an impressive group of players at Old Trafford, yet will sanction big-money deals in order to improve.

The strong are getting stronger and that is not only a problem for Chelsea, but the rest of the Premier League. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are not reckless with their cash. They may spend big on the right player, such as Virgil van Dijk, but won't, like City, bring in three full-backs for around £130million.

So if the Manchester clubs continue to spend big every transfer window, a gap could emerge. Of course, that can be closed during a season through good coaching and intelligent recruitment, but longer term the two clubs may become dominant forces.

The Premier League is unlikely to be similar to La Liga, where Real Madrid and Barcelona rake in more money than the other 18 clubs combined. But there is, as Conte made clear, a concern that City and United will break away from the rest of the top six.

Chelsea could decide they want to be a part of that, however. If Abramovich loosens the purse strings, then the big-spending Blues of old could quickly return to challenge the Manchester clubs to signings.

And perhaps that is what is needed. Conte won't benefit, with all indications being he will leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the season, but by acknowledging and highlighting United and City's breakaway, perhaps Chelsea will be spurred into action. They certainly won't want to be left behind.

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