Sunday 22 April 2018

Chelsea are on a mission to unsettle Spurs on new home patch

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Matthew Childs/Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte. Photo: Matthew Childs/Reuters

Amy Lawrence

Considering neither Chelsea nor Antonio Conte are renowned for their love of long managerial reigns, it was a surprise to see something in the Italian's eyes spark when he contemplated bucking tradition to stick around for longer than the average in these parts.

Since Dave Sexton settled in half a century ago, only two managers have lasted four seasons at Chelsea. Claudio Ranieri was the most recent, with John Neal, who took over when the club had been flirting with relegation to English football's third tier, the other. Conte contemplated the statistics. "I want to break this bad record," he said. "I must be positive. I hope to stay in this club for many years."

Some longer-term musings certainly beat the short-term issues, with the Chelsea camp dogged by difficulties at the start of their title defence. The fretful defeat by Burnley on the opening day, the list of important absentees exacerbated by the suspensions of Gary Cahill and Cesc Fàbregas, and, of course, the standoff with Diego Costa, with the striker holed up in Brazil, do not make for an ideal set of circumstances leading into today's contest against Tottenham.

Perhaps, he pondered, not everything is so gloriously aligned for their opponents. Although Conte speaks admiringly of Tottenham's stability while they strive to improve, he knows from experience that this season playing home matches at Wembley might have a complicated impact. In his playing days, Conte spent 13 years patrolling the midfield for Juventus. He joined them in 1991, the year after they moved into the Stadio delle Alpi, an unloved and unatmospheric home that had been built for the World Cup in 1990 and was passed on for Juve and Torino to share. Juve never really loved it there. That feeling of gaining extra power from your environment never materialised.

"I played a lot in the Delle Alpi as a player," he recalls. "I think that it wasn't a real stadium. It was very cold and you don't feel the passion of the fans because the stand was very far from the pitch."

Juve decided to build their own place and Conte was back at the club as coach to take them into their new domain in 2011. "When we changed to the new stadium, the situation changed totally, above all for the players. The players felt the fans behind them. It's great. For sure it was a key moment for Juventus."

Conte suggests Spurs's players might find that something elemental is missing when they arrive at Wembley. "For sure, it's not the same when you don't play in your stadium," he says. "But if you want to have another good step to improve the club, you must have this type of situation."

It is one he is willing to take on if he does find the evolution of his relationship with Chelsea grows all the way to the time when the club takes time out to renovate Stamford Bridge. "Why not? I hope because this could be a fantastic challenge for me and also for the club, to stay together and also to play with this team in a new stadium. Honestly, the new stadium will be great, but I love Stamford Bridge a lot. I feel Stamford Bridge is like my house."

The start of the 2017-18 house party was not great last weekend. After the 3-2 defeat to Burnley that Chelsea ended with nine men, Conte wears that hardened look of someone who has thrown his energy into trying to get things ship shape in time for the match against Tottenham. There are decisions to be made about the starting XI, not least how to best cover for the absence of the tried and tested. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Alvaro Morata are pushing for starts.

Morata is in contention even though Conte reckons he needs time to fine-tune physically and hit his peak. "Morata can stay in this club for many years to become a fantastic striker for this club. If you remember, Morata didn't play regularly with Real Madrid last season because he was behind Karim Benzema. When you don't play regularly you sometimes lose your performance, sometimes your quality in your physical condition. You need a bit of time to recover this.

"We want Morata to play regularly for Chelsea. My choices don't depend on money. We can spend a lot of money for one player and then I put him on the bench, because I'm seeing this player is not ready to play. The most important thing is to have the confidence of the coach, the club, the team-mates."

The composition of midfield is another question. A new partner for N'Golo Kante is something Conte wants to encourage. It may not be the simplest assignment for Bakayoko if this is his debut, against a midfield with the physical power of Tottenham's, but with Fabregas suspended, the opportunity is Bakayoko's to seize.

Conte gives the impression he is having to push a few new faces into the spotlight earlier and more intensely than he would have liked. That is the situation Chelsea find themselves in. But he also appears bullish enough to imply this might be the kick-start his team needs.

Chelsea's manager will be back in his match-day suit this afternoon - he could not lay his hands on it before while he was dealing with removals and a new property. As the Italian well knows, moving home can be unsettling and throw out your usual routines. Now he wants his team to take those sentiments to Tottenham. Tottenham v Chelsea

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