LONDON -- Antonio Conte warned that Chelsea must prioritise quality over quantity in the transfer market this summer if they are to make up lost ground on Manchester City and Manchester United next season.
The Premier League champions signed six players for a combined outlay of just under £180 million last summer but City, in contrast, splashed out more than £120m on full-backs alone and more than £200m in total, while United hijacked Chelsea's proposed £75m move for Romelu Lukaku from Everton and bought Nemanja Matic from the Blues in a £40m deal.
The big-spending of the Manchester clubs continued in January, with United agreeing to make Alexis Sanchez the fourth-highest paid footballer in the world to prise him from Arsenal and City signing centre-back Aymeric Laporte for £58m from Athletic Bilbao.
Conte said last month that the numbers involved made it impossible for Chelsea to compete for Sanchez, but speaking on Friday he indicated that they must find a way to add more top-tier talent if they want to be the best team in England again.
"I think now we must be realistic and understand what our level is," Conte said. "Now we have to struggle to fight for a Champions League place. That is the top [priority]. We must be strong to accept this type of situation.
"Then, in the future, if there is the possibility [to strengthen], you have to try to buy only two or three players -- not eight players. Don't forget, this summer we brought in eight players and spent a lot less than other teams who bought only two or three."
Chelsea currently lie fourth in the Premier League, 19 points adrift of City after 25 matches.
Conte has described the setbacks his team have encountered this season as proof that the club is in a transition period, having lost influential veterans like Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech and Branislav Ivanovic in recent years, replacing them with younger faces.
"We are in a moment that we have to create a basis," Conte added. "We have to build something important. To do this, you must have 15 or 16 players. In the summer we changed eight players. That means you don't have a basis, a great foundation. We must have great patience to understand the moment.
"We lost strong, experienced players in the last few years, so we must have patience to understand that, now, we have to appreciate the moment, be realistic, create a basis and then build something important to face big challenges with the other teams."
The question of whether Conte will be around to see that process through is the subject of more speculation than ever, with Italian Football Association chiefs saying this week they want to talk to Chelsea's head coach about a potential second spell in charge of Italy.
Conte distanced himself from those comments on Friday, saying: "As you know very well, until [Thursday] Costacurta was a pundit. Not a person who understands the rules. Maybe he forgot I have a contract with Chelsea so it's not possible to speak with me or [Roberto] Mancini. Maybe with [Carlo] Ancelotti.
"One thing I must be very clear [about]: I don't have interest in this speculation or rumours. I don't like to have relationships with journalists. Not because you don't like me, but I'm used to this. You can ask in Italy, also. If I have to give news, it's for all. Not only for one, two or three [people].
"If you remember, I took the decision to come back to club [coaching] before starting the European Championship with Italy, because I felt the necessity to work every day with the players. Now I'm not looking so far forward. Now I'm very focused on the present.
"The present for me is Chelsea. I'm very happy with this. I took this choice and I want to respect this choice. Also because, I repeat, I'm sure we are doing an incredible work here."