Wednesday 22 November 2017

Conte revolution transforms Chelsea

Manager's obsession with winning driving club to new heights, insists Townsend

Chelsea are a different team with a different shape under Antonio Conte. Photo: Simon Cooper/PA Wire
Chelsea are a different team with a different shape under Antonio Conte. Photo: Simon Cooper/PA Wire

Colin Young

Thirteen years ago this week Jose Mourinho was launched at Old Trafford when his unfancied Porto sent shockwaves through Europe with a sensational victory to knock Manchester United out of the Champions League. It was 'The Run Down the Touchline' night.

Porto, on their way to winning Europe's premier competition, held a 2-1 lead from the first leg in the Estadio do Dragao to reach the quarter-finals. They fell behind after half an hour when Paul Scholes scored for Alex Ferguson's English champions, heading home John O'Shea's cross. Just before the break, Scholes had a second wrongly disallowed for offside.

And Porto certainly took advantage. In the final minute of the game, Phil Neville fouled Edgaras Jankauskas at the edge of the penalty area. South African striker Benni McCarthy's free-kick was spilled by Tim Howard and Costinha smashed the loose ball into the back of the net.

And so, Mourinho was launched. Literally. Suited and booted, he sprinted down the touchline, leaped on his players and joined the delirium among the Porto supporters in the corner of Old Trafford. The rest of the ground was silent.

He announced his arrival as The Special One at Stamford Bridge that summer, and five months later his first game as Chelsea manager was a 1-0 win over Manchester United. It was the start of his dominance over his current employers.

Mourinho lost just two games to Manchester United in 20 matches, most notably Inter Milan's Champions League semi-final defeat in 2009 when Ferguson's side finished runners-up to Barcelona. His Real Madrid made amends with their semi-final victory four years later, his last encounter with Ferguson. He won nine, drew nine and his stifling teams scored just 23 goals but conceded 13. United won 11 trophies. Mourinho has won eight leagues, including three Premier League titles with Chelsea, the Champions League twice and UEFA Cup once. He also won one FA Cup and three League Cups in his two spells at Stamford Bridge.

Now the Manchester United manager, Mourinho did not take kindly to Antonio Conte leading his orchestra at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season during Chelsea's 4-0 drubbing in their first meeting. At the final whistle, he rebuked his eventual predecessor for whipping up the crowd as his team, and Mourinho, were being humiliated. His team. But still his crowd.

Manchester United have won the EFL Cup but they never been in the title race in Mourinho's first season and first job since leaving Chelsea 'by mutual consent' last season, despite Conte's contention that they have the best squad in the division. Mourinho's aim is Champions League qualification and still remains attainable through the Europa League or a fop four finish.

Former Republic of Ireland and Chelsea captain Andy Townsend is a frequent visitor to Stamford Bridge as pundit and fan and witnessed the evolution of the club and the team since Mourinho was hired by Roman Abramovich.

He sees similarities with Conte and the younger Mourinho, who ended Chelsea's 50-year wait for the English league crown when he led the club to the title in his first season. The former Juventus and Italy manager's champions-elect already compare to Mourinho's best sides, and any assembled by those who succeeded him.

Townsend said: "The team has evolved and I see such a great collective unit and a manager who has that huge obsession to win games that Mourinho had in his early days. He has a relentless drive to win which his players truly believe in. It is an obsession.

"We are used to seeing Chelsea winning titles but they have moved on. This is a different team, different manager, different shape and different formation.

"But this current team, with their running ability, their pace in key areas, their attacking brilliance and their defensive nous, is as good as anything over the last 12 years. And that takes a lot for me to say because I am a huge admirer of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba and the teams they played in and the other great players in those teams.

"The team that won the first title and the team that won the Champions League had some top players, with Terry at the back, Frank's ability to score added to Drogba's goals, but Conte's team would run them close."

Tomorrow's FA Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford comes with Conte on course for the League and FA Cup double in his first season. Chelsea have the title in their hands after Manchester City's draw with Stoke City in midweek.

Chelsea have 66 points and are 10 clear of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City with 11 games to play. Fourth-placed Liverpool are on 52 points and have played a game more than Arsenal, 50 points and Manchester United, 49.

From other five Champions League chasers, the league leaders have to play Manchester City on April 5, and United 11 days later. They could wrap up the title that Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford.

Although attention will focus on FA Cup progress and a win over United and Mourinho tomorrow, Townsend is convinced the title is Chelsea's. He said: "They have broken the back of it. They might lose one or two, pick up a couple of draws, but I can't see them losing the title now and I can't see any team winning every game.

"There is no reason to think they will drop off the pace. The players are at their best, playing consistent percentage football and they don't take unnecessary risks.

"David Luiz is a completely different player in that back three and he has never played like this in his life. You can see Conte has told him, he wants no risky defending.

"There are very few weaknesses. There are usually just a couple of changes - Fabregas for Matic, and Willian for Pedro - so he is essentially picking the same team, week in, week out, and I am very impressed with them.

"He has the perfect players to win the Premier League. He has a relentless, disciplined, organised manner with them, which they turn on every week, and star quality in Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Pedro to win matches.

"They have been outstanding and I love the way they play together, playing slightly narrower, which gets the best out of Costa, who I think is the best centre-forward in the Premier League.

"He is not the quickest, so he is not going to destroy anyone with his pace, but because they are closer to him, when he gets the ball now he can mix his game.

"You wouldn't class Matic or Kante as creative players, but they are built to counter-attack with that front three, and of course Alonso and Moses have been revelations as the wing-backs."

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