Saturday 25 November 2017

Antonio Conte: I have turned Chelsea from an ugly duckling into a swan

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and N'Golo Kante celebrate after the win over Arsenal
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and N'Golo Kante celebrate after the win over Arsenal

Matt Law

Antonio Conte has claimed he has turned Premier League leaders Chelsea from an “ugly duckling” into a “swan” since his arrival at Stamford Bridge.

And in an interview in his native Italy, head coach Conte has for the first time admitted to rowing with Diego Costa before dropping him for the Leicester City game.

Chelsea took another step towards the title with a 3-1 victory over Arsenal on Saturday, which also avenged the 3-0 defeat at the Emirates in September that sparked Conte’s formation change and the turnaround in results.

Conte took over a Chelsea squad that had finished 10th with the likes of Costa, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois all under-performing, but the Blues are now nine points ahead at the top of the table.

Asked by Sky Sports Italia about Chelsea’s transformation, Conte said: “I have blind faith in what I do. We had won the first three games, but I didn’t like the performances. It was a delicate time, but not dramatic.

“Looking at last season, when Chelsea had practically the same players, you cannot immediately transform from ugly ducking into a swan. At the end of the day we found our balance. The blind faith in my ideas helped. I made some strong choices.”

Conte’s “strong choices” included dropping Costa for last month’s victory over Leicester, following a training ground bust up with the striker over an injury and a big-money approach from China.

Up until now, Conte has kept the nature of the row a secret but admitted: “I was very clear with him and raised my voice, and the player understood. Now everything is perfect.”

Despite Chelsea’s big advantage and the fact they practically knocked Arsenal out of the title race, Conte is still refusing to take anything for granted.

“There is no one particular team that worries me more,” said Conte. “The experience of being a player really helps. I won the Champions League, but I also lost other finals and that made me more determined to win.

“You can’t talk about the title yet, as anything could still happen. Just look at us, Chelsea were struggling at the start and turned the whole season around. We’ve got to stay calm.

“Manchester City beat Swansea with two minutes to go and I would’ve preferred that game end in a draw.”

Hazard scored a wonder goal in the victory over Arsenal to take his tally for the season to 10 in the Premier League and Conte said: “He has incredible talent and really balances the phases of the game.”

Conte also praised N’Golo Kante, who is on course to collect his second successive title winners’ medal with two different clubs after being part of Leicester’s incredible success.

The Italian, however, still believes the midfielder can get even better and said: “Kante is extraordinary. He brings a lot of quantity, ok, but what quality too. Even if he should improve in his build-up play. His first pass is always horizontal and he needs to make that vertical. I was just like him, so I do understand.

“He’s a really good lad, always helping his team-mates. He’s been a great buy, though he’s often tired by the time he gets to the goal. He’s still young and can improve.”

Conte’s touchline antics have been almost as interesting to watch as his team and the 47-year-old admitted he can get caught up in the moment, usually at the expense of his assistant first-team coach Angelo Alessio.

“When I see something that isn’t going right, I am capable of murdering anyone,” said Conte. “I was angry against Arsenal because Kante was supposed to track back in place of Moses, who had gone into the box to mark the sixth Arsenal man on the corner. He didn’t do that and I took it out on Alessio. He’s been my right hand man and thus, unfortunately, my victim for many years.”

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