Thursday 21 November 2019

Conte and Guardiola braced for fireworks

Antonio Conte in a relaxed mood during yesterday’s press conference. Photo: AP
Antonio Conte in a relaxed mood during yesterday’s press conference. Photo: AP

Miguel Delaney

If when Antonio Conte got home on Saturday evening after Chelsea surprisingly lost to Crystal Palace, he couldn't relax, and certainly couldn't go back out for dinner.

Before he could do anything, he first had to understand how and why his side had lost, so he just had to go through the misery of a defeat once more and watch the whole match again.

"For me, it's very difficult to go out, to have a dinner," Conte said. "I have to reflect on the defeat… I needed to understand the reason, to understand our performance. I needed to take the right information about our game and I tried to watch the game early.

"We had a dinner with my daughter, my wife and my brother, also. Then I tried, also, to watch the television."

And what did he watch?

"Football. Football, football... but my wife knows me very well. She understands my mood in that moment."

Pep Guardiola would also understand. The Manchester City manager lives the same way. Take the last time he played Conte's Chelsea, a 3-1 defeat in December. "Believe me, I watched the game many times," he admitted.

firing This is the type of irritable perfectionism that powers repeat title-winners, and that could yet power this season's title run-in. Saturday's defeat might have suddenly created some doubt about a Chelsea that were cruising, but it seems to have just fired Conte to obsessively ensure no doubt will enter his team, to fix whatever it was that went wrong.

Guardiola would understand that too, as he similarly seeks to undo them by firing his team. "I don't think so," the Catalan said, when asked if Chelsea's confidence would be affected. "They will be more focused. When you win 10, 11 or 12 games in a row, the danger is to be relaxed. You are winning and have a points advantage. But when you lose a game, after that the warnings are there."

Conte has had plenty of warnings from his own career as a player and manager, and spoke on the eve of tonight's crunch match about how he couldn't sleep for a week when Lazio hauled in his Juventus to win the 1999-2000 title when he was a player.

In a way also typical of repeat winners, Conte seems to espouse that Roy Keane mentality of being much more motivated by defeat, of having the failures linger in the memory much longer than any of the successes.

"When you play in these teams, it's normal to have good experiences, positive experiences, but also negative experiences. I won one Champions League final and lost three. You think that's not the same? It is. It's the same. It's not easy to accept the defeats."

That mentality is another reason why Conte's decision to suddenly comment on Tottenham was so conspicuous - to, if you like, engage in mind games - beyond the fact that Mauricio Pochettino's side have closed the gap at the top for the first time in months.

The Chelsea manager seemed to so specifically hone in on the fact Spurs just aren't used to winning, and one fair inference is that he means they won't have that drive to properly haul the leaders in, that they might again get a bit light-headed at being so high.

Conte also refused to rule City out of that race despite a gap of 11 points between them before even going into the game. He and Guardiola were full of praise for each other, with the Catalan describing Conte as someone he learns so much from watching and 'maybe the best' manager around... but he didn't think Chelsea were the better team back in December. That's what he gleaned from watching it so many times.

"We were much, much better," Guardiola said. "I'm sorry Antonio, but we were. We deserved to win. There were unbelievable penalties that did not happen in that game and many other things. In general we'd like to be further up, but how they try and how they play, I'm so satisfied."

It was telling that Conte came to much the same conclusion from re-watching Chelsea's defeat to Palace.


"I wasn't happy because I think we didn't deserve to lose the game for many reasons: we created many chances to score goals; many situations I saw after the game and not during the game... but this is football."

This is also why tonight's game could be even better than the December meeting at the Etihad.

That encounter may have ended 3-1 to Chelsea but, before it got to that score, it was one of the most relentlessly exhilarating and tactically exacting games of the season.

The return fixture is likely to see all of that, maybe super-charged by the higher stakes, stakes that will distil the drive of these managers. (© Independent News Service)

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