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Sunday 23 July 2017

Antonio Conte a quiet winner who has put Chelsea back on their perch

Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte has hit the ground running and delivered
Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte has hit the ground running and delivered

Second choice? Second place? Not for Antonio Conte. He hit the ground running at Chelsea and delivered.

The 47-year-old Italian may have been behind Pep Guardiola as the manager most coveted by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.

But he has delivered a Premier League title in his first season as Chelsea boss and the double could follow with victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup final on May 27.

Not even Jose Mourinho, Chelsea's most successful manager, won both of those trophies in the same campaign. Carlo Ancelotti, a long-time friend of Conte's, did in 2009-10.

Mourinho, now boss of Manchester United, might point to the fact Chelsea have not been in European action and that Conte's success came with his team.

The Portuguese was also responsible for the lack of continental competition, despite his recent protestations that a Chelsea side in free fall domestically were still in contention to win the Champions League.

Conte revived a Chelsea team which had become dysfunctional just months after Mourinho's third Premier League title.

The former Juventus and Italy boss, who opted for the title 'head coach' over 'manager', saw the potential and harnessed it through his favourite word: work.

With impressive English at his public unveiling - his determination to speak and learn the language testament to his own work ethic and desire to impress - Conte outlined his intention last July.

"We're slightly under-rated, but I hope we're in there and we can surprise people and that this can motivate us further," Conte said.

"I hope there is a small flame flickering that can eventually grow into a blazing inferno."

Mourinho might have fanned the flames and the blaze would have grown so big it would no longer be in his control; Conte nurtured his fire in a different way.

With unity, functionality and a devastating ruthlessness, Conte dealt with matters like his team did on the field.

Even the potentially explosive moments were dealt with expertly, perhaps with the exception of the persistent rumours of Inter Milan's interest in him. Until now he has focused on the present, but the questions surrounding his future need to be answered.

John Terry's departure after 22 years at Chelsea, the vast majority as captain, has been respectful and courteous. It had to happen some time.

The conduct of striker Diego Costa threatened to derail Chelsea's title bid in January when, after a hot streak in front of goal, he missed the trip to Leicester after reportedly having his head turned by a lucrative offer from the Chinese Super League.

That was quickly extinguished by Conte, who refused to comment publicly on the matter but may now decide to cash in on a striker whose goal return has fallen since.

Costa earlier in the campaign requested to be replaced against Leicester, only to be ignored by Conte, who at that time said Chelsea needed the striker.

That showed Conte was in control. His battles were not waged in the media and he did not engage with managers baiting him from Manchester or elsewhere.

Mourinho provided champagne for the media on his birthday; Conte took regular attendees of his pre-match media conferences to the pub yards from Chelsea's Surrey training ground for a Christmas drink.

Chelsea were revived quickly. The September losses to Liverpool and at Arsenal prompted Conte to switch to a 3-4-3 formation and 13 successive league wins followed. He rarely tinkered with his personnel.

The next loss came at Tottenham in January, but Chelsea responded again.

He regularly pointed to his experience as a player at the highest level - pointedly something Mourinho did not have - and cautioned against premature celebrations even when Chelsea's lead was in double figures.

Conte had won Serie A chasing a large deficit; he had also lost it when in possession of a big lead. He says he did not sleep for six days after that.

He told Chelsea to use "antennae", pointed to the experienced winners within his squad and had N'Golo Kante, plus Victor Moses and David Luiz - two players previously jettisoned by Mourinho - as central figures in his line-up. Eden Hazard thrived again, too.

When Mourinho's United inflicted Chelsea's fifth loss of the season and second of April, many wondered if the Blues were about to stumble as their lead over Tottenham slipped to four points.

This was a team which finished 10th last season, a team which lost two of their opening six games this time.

No-one expected Chelsea to be in the position they were in, Conte argued, while maintaining focus on the task at hand. And they delivered.

After Mourinho was berated by Chelsea supporters in United's FA Cup loss at Stamford Bridge, the former Blues boss said: "Until the moment they have a manager that wins four Premier Leagues for them, I'm the number one."

Do not bet against Conte displacing him.

Press Association

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