Friday 21 July 2017

Antonio Conte insists there is no such thing as a one-horse race - but Chelsea are proving otherwise

Chelsea are eight points clear with 16 games remaining, but the trophy engravers can start their work now. Getty
Chelsea are eight points clear with 16 games remaining, but the trophy engravers can start their work now. Getty

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Antonio Conte has a long memory and few press conferences go by without a reference to his playing days. He knows something about winning titles too, having won five Scudetti with Juventus as a player and another three at the same club as manager.

So Conte knows that a title race is never over until the end. His Chelsea team may be eight points clear with 16 games left, but he has seen races swing away over much shorter run-ins than that. After Sunday afternoon’s defeat of Hull City, asked whether the title was his to lose, he pointed back to two other examples from his playing history: snatching one title, blowing another, over the final few games.

Back in the 1999-2000 season Conte’s Juve were five points clear at the top of Serie A with four games left. But they stumbled to away defeats at Verona and Perugia and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s big-money Lazio pinched the title instead.

Two years later, Conte was a veteran in Marcello Lippi’s side and with five games left they were stuck in third, behind Roma and a whole six points behind leaders Internazionale. But they won their last five, Inter fell away, and the title went back to Turin.

“From my experience, in my career as footballer, I have won one title and lost one [that looked unlikely] four games from the end,” Conte said. “Now we have an eight point lead with 16 games to play. Me and my players need to know that this league will be very tough until the end.”

Conte will not leave his Chelsea players in any doubt about the amount of work they still have left to do. Because the fact is that only complacency can stop Chelsea from winning the title from here.

Yes, 16 games left means more than 40 per cent of the season remains. But that does not mean Chelsea are likelier to fall away. Their eight-point gap is likelier to grow than to shrink, for the simple reason that they are clearly a superior team to any of their rivals.

Last season was an exciting title race because there was always the lingering question of whether Leicester were good enough to hold onto the lead. The best title race of recent years was 2013-14 when three flawed teams, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool, took it in turns to blow the lead before City scraped over the line at the end.

But just as often as that we have non-races, where the eventual winner is so much better than everyone else that the title is confirmed with games to go, having felt inevitable long before that: such as Chelsea in 2015 or Manchester United in 2013. This season is facing the same prospect. Chelsea do not even have the draining prospect of the Champions League knock-out rounds, that cost them the title in 2014, to distract them.

What is so ominous about Chelsea this week is that they have shrugged off two potential obstacles, the 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane and China’s head-turning offer for Diego Costa. There is no reason to believe now, other than serious injuries to Costa and Eden Hazard, that they won’t win the title in May.

But what if that does happen? What if the goals dry up and suddenly Chelsea start dropping points? It would take one of the chasing pack to show much better form than they have been to catch them.

Arsenal are second, eight points back, and have found some stability after damaging defeats at Everton and Manchester City last month. But the last time they produced a good performance to beat a rival was back in September, against a very different Chelsea side.

Liverpool were the best team in the country over the start of the season but they have shown how much they miss Sadio Mane this month, with just one win in six, and that coming against Plymouth Argyle. Their first eleven is a fearsome prospect but they will need to rediscover the fizz and zip they showed in the autumn to make up any ground.

Manchester City are brilliant on their day but no team has ever won the title with a goalkeeper and defence as bad as theirs. Pep Guardiola may be a tactical genius but even he cannot square that circle.

Which leaves us with Tottenham Hotspur, the team who played the best football for most of last season but could not keep it up in March, April and May.

This year they are playing even better, more expansively than anyone, and of course they are the only team since September to beat Chelsea. They have to make up nine points on Chelsea, as well as managing their Europa League campaign, and riding out the typical April dip that afflicts Mauricio Pochettino teams.

They could play brilliantly for the next two months and still do what they did last spring. And yet even their slim chance of catching Chelsea is better than anyone else’s. Conte may warn of Lazio in 2000, but the Premier League engravers can get to work.

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