Wednesday 23 August 2017

Conte savouring that winning feeling but headache awaits

Crystal Palace 0 Chelsea 1

Diego Costa celebrates Chelsea’s goal with manager Antonio Conte at Selhurst Park yesterday. Photo Reuters
Diego Costa celebrates Chelsea’s goal with manager Antonio Conte at Selhurst Park yesterday. Photo Reuters

Miguel Delaney

Chelsea turn it up to 11, in results, if not quite performance. Without being brilliant against Crystal Palace, Antonio Conte's side kept this sensational winning streak going. Their 1-0 win ensured it was 11 in a row, a club record and the joint second highest - along with five other sides - in a single English season since 1945. They are now two off Arsenal's run of 13 from 2001-'02, and next up? Bournemouth and Stoke City at home over Christmas.

The only problem, and only negative from this game - other than the general tepidity of an early kick-off - is that N'Golo Kante and Diego Costa will be suspended from that awkward St Stephen's Day fixture against Bournemouth. Both picked up their fifth bookings of the season, at the same time they both emphasised their huge importance to the team.

Chelsea's Gary Cahill in action with Crystal Palace's Christian Benteke. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea's Gary Cahill in action with Crystal Palace's Christian Benteke. Photo: Reuters

Costa again hit the only goal of the game, heading over a stranded Wayne Hennessey on 44 minutes, and Kante was then crucial in making sure that was enough. The midfielder was all the more important because this wasn't the most convincing display, and instead fostered the sense that opposition sides are beginning to figure out how to at least prepare and play against Conte's 3-4-3. There is even an argument that Palace had the better of the game, given how much they pressed Chelsea back. When it came right down to it late in the second half, however, Kante was always there; always where he needed to be when Alan Pardew's side were trying to build something.

That has perhaps been the most impressive thing about Chelsea's run: that variety, and their own alternate responses to different challenges. It started with Conte's side overwhelming teams but, as more managers have reacted, more of the Italian's stars have stepped up. Costa has offered clutch match-winning goals, Eden Hazard game-breaking moments. In other words, when Chelsea's collective isn't quite firing, they have an individual that can offer something unexpected.

There are still two questions arising from all this.

The first is how sustainable this run is now, whether it really can go that bit further. This was the third 1-0 win in a row, with the margins seemingly getting tighter and tighter. Will Conte have to start changing it up a bit, to start surprising sides again?

Crystal Palace's Joel Ward and Chelsea's Victor Moses in full flight. Photo: Reuters
Crystal Palace's Joel Ward and Chelsea's Victor Moses in full flight. Photo: Reuters

Even Pardew, while greatly praising Chelsea, stated that "they weren't as brilliant going forward as they have been in other games".

Conte will be forced to change that attack for the next game, likely bringing in Michy Batshuayi for Costa, but didn't exactly reveal any tactical thoughts he had here. He did, however, make one ominous admission. "I think we have space, room to improve. Our formation is now 3-4-3, but we are working on principles and not on the system . . . in the future, we can have different ideas to change and find different solutions. But I think now it's not a good idea to change, no?

"The run is fantastic. Congratulations to my players, not me. I am pleased for them because they deserve this. I see every single moment, every day.

"It is commitment, the way we prepare for the game and the way they fight. I am pleased for the fans who are fantastic home and away and who push us."

Chelsea's Marcos Alonso and Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha battle for possession. Photo: Reuters
Chelsea's Marcos Alonso and Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha battle for possession. Photo: Reuters

Conte, however, didn't want to go overboard in praising a mere run no matter how good it is.

"I like to see that in the present, but I want the future to be special for us."

And that's the second question. Will this run actually result in the title?

Long-term history bodes well for them. Of those six other sides to win at least 11 games in a row - Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur 1960-'61, Liverpool 1981-'82, Manchester United 1999-2000, Manchester United 2008-'09 and Liverpool 2013-'14 - five of them won the title. The exception is the most recent example, Brendan Rodgers's Liverpool.

They just couldn't recover the same verve once Chelsea ruptured their rhythm in that famous game towards the end of the 2013-'14 campaign, although that was obviously complicated by how close it was to the finish. The relevant issue is still how teams on these kind of runs almost begin to surf the wave they're on without even needing to think about it too much. They're just on a plane.

Once it's disrupted, though, they're forced to think about it again and it can suddenly seem forced; a bit off. Arsenal were exactly like this when their 49-game unbeaten run was brought to a halt in 2004.

Of course, someone actually has to stop Chelsea first.

"We tried everything today," Pardew lamented. "We threw everything we could."

And Chelsea still continue to beat all before them.

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