Monday 25 March 2019

Filling leadership void left by a legend

John Terry has always been an inspirational figure for Chelsea, but the clock is ticking. Photo: Reuters
John Terry has always been an inspirational figure for Chelsea, but the clock is ticking. Photo: Reuters

Dominic Fifield

John Terry cropped up in Antonio Conte's pre-match briefing for today's game. It says much about the Italian's reinvention of this team over recent months that the subject of Chelsea's captain of 15 years had rather faded from the news agenda, but there had been talk of the England set-up using the defender as a mentor for younger players, or of coaching opportunities ahead, and almost an assumption his playing days are all but over. But Conte was not quite having that.

The centre-half is still recovering from a muscle problem in his buttock, ruling him out of today's visit of West Bromwich Albion to Stamford Bridge, and has played only six minutes since mid-September, but he has a role to play if this team are to extend their winning run.

"He's still a footballer who is just injured at the moment, but he's continuing to be a leader in the changing room," Conte said. "John asked me if he could come with us to Manchester City and stay with us before and during the game. That was important for me: John is our captain, and you are a captain if you play or not, or if you are injured or not. He's showing great commitment and I'm pleased with this."

That is a very different role to organising and inspiring, barking orders and summoning tackles on the pitch, but it is one the 35-year-old has still embraced.

He is still there cajoling and encouraging, attempting to coax progress from Kurt Zouma after his own long-term injury problems or offering Nathaniel Chalobah advice on making his mark.

The veteran is studying for his Uefa coaching badges and has been spied, stopwatch in hand, overseeing the unused substitutes' post-match warm-down sessions. The interest from abroad that will surface formally in January as his contract enters its final six months - most likely led by his former team-mate Gus Poyet pushing Shanghai Shenhua to offer the player terms - will not distract him. Terry feels he has a role still to play in Chelsea's title challenge and that will be his focus.

Yet his absence from the team has created a void into which Conte hopes others will step. Chelsea are not blessed with the same imposing characters of the recent past. The current crop are reliant on a different type of leader. The manager has conceded it is time for some to grow.

"It's important to increase the leadership qualities in the other players," said Conte. "I like to see this and I ask it of my players, but we are improving on this aspect." And they are coming from unlikely sources.

Diego Costa joined his manager and team-mate Pedro Rodriguez in claiming a personal award for his performances for November: Chelsea have the manager and player of the month for the second time in succession, while Pedro landed goal of the month to complete the clean sweep - and has perhaps become the biggest inspiration of all.

Costa used to be trouble and yet, from the petulant figure waving his arms in frustration at Conte during the victory over Leicester in mid-October early on in the team's revival, he has suddenly become an example for all to follow.

He still bullies his markers brutally, as Nicolas Otamendi discovered so uncomfortably at the Etihad Stadium, but his weight of goals - 43 in 68 Premier League games, even with one largely duff season incorporated - sets him apart.

Just as significantly, he no longer appears a player at war with the world. He has gone nine games without a caution, a fourth of the term for some industrial language directed at the referee Michael Oliver at Arsenal on the occasion Chelsea last lost in the league. The striker has never gone so long without a card in his 11-year professional career.

Conte could not really pinpoint just what he has done to curb Costa's inner fury while maintaining an acceptable level of aggression.

"Diego is a real warrior and is good for the team, because every game is a sporting battle and it's important to have warriors in your side. He's improving a lot and putting his passion in the team in the best way."

Even the manager had to fight to suppress his incredulity at recalling Costa the peacemaker during the melee, sparked by Sergio Aguero's lunge on David Luiz, at the end of the victory at Manchester City. "Diego is showing his best side now," he said. "Before, all we heard was he was showing 'bad passion'. Now he's showing his real character."

All the frustration that would leave him a raging bull has been channelled, his focus now on movement, strength and maintaining a goal tally swollen to 11 in 14 league games. There were times last season when Chelsea could not place trust in a loose cannon, but now they take reassurance from his presence.

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