Monday 10 December 2018

James Lawton - Abramovich unlikely to be swayed by Conte's passion play

Antonio Conte faces a crucial game for his future when Chelsea meet Jose Mourinho and Manchester United on Sunday. Photo: AP
Antonio Conte faces a crucial game for his future when Chelsea meet Jose Mourinho and Manchester United on Sunday. Photo: AP

James Lawton

The word gets stronger that Antonio Conte is a dead coach walking at Chelsea, that his fate was sealed when the team he drove so brilliantly to last season's Premier League fell apart in Rome this week.

But if it is so there can be only one reaction. It is that no condemned football man has ever worn his values with more defiant passion.

Even if at Stamford Bridge on Sunday he suffers a new torment, this time from Manchester United's Jose Mourinho, a man who has twice discovered that winning titles earns no kind of security in the mind of the Chelsea oligarch, you still have to believe that indeed one certainty will hold.

Roman Abramovich can take away Conte's job, as he did Roberto Di Matteo's mere months after he won the Champions League, he can cut him down in a back corridor in the fashion of Carlo Ancelotti's fall - after winning the double - but he cannot destroy his understanding of who he is and how he will always see the challenges of football.

One theory is that Conte signed his own death warrant when he roughly dispensed with the services of Diego Costa last summer. Conte said that all of Costa's goals did not compensate for his failure to understand what a team should be, how it must go into every game.

It is said Abramovich was appalled that his coach acted so independently - and that without the buttress of a team performing to the limit of its ability, and his own deepest beliefs, Conte's position has weakened - fatally.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Photo: PA
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Photo: PA

Rabble

Nine points behind leaders Manchester City, his team reduced to an incoherent rabble in Rome's Olympic Stadium, Conte will go against Mourinho under the additional charge that he has lost a dressing room which once responded to his urgings with sustained force. And why is it no longer the case? Because, we are told, Conte drives too hard, asks too much of footballers who count their wages in millions.

In the despair he found against Roma this week Conte's outrage over his team's performance went deeper than anger. There were no excuses over missing key personnel like N'Golo Kante, or the residual effects of injury on such as Eden Hazard and Costa's initially impressive replacement Alvaro Morata, no complaints about the club's failure of ambition in the summer transfer market or the fact that Cesc Fabregas's influence and vision seem to be fast dwindling.

No, while Mourinho rather coyly complained about Old Trafford's distinctly tepid reaction to a so-so defeat of Benfica, it was as though Conte in Rome was baring his soul.

In so many words he said that his team had not so much betrayed their coach or their club but themselves. They had lost their understanding of what it takes to be champions.

When he spoke, with such anguish, he might have been reliving those days when his vocation was to battle for his life as a central midfielder - playing nearly 300 times for Juventus and 20 for Italy. And, perhaps still more, mourning the loss of the exhilaration that came to him as the coach of serial Italian champions Juve, of a revived national team in the 2016 European Championships and the hound-dog ferocity of last season's Chelsea.

Here it was possible to note the difference in style and demeanour of Conte and Sunday's rival Mourinho. Conte may be Italian, Mourinho Portuguese but the contrast runs so much wider they might have arrived from different planets.

Mourinho, a mediocre, minor league player in Portugal, has become one of the great coaches with titles in Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. But if he understands football with great and sometimes dark sophistication, if he is the game's supreme pragmatist, Conte remains in triumph - and the current potential failure - all of one piece. It is that of an ultimately driven football man.

After United's triumph over Benfica, Mourinho made his points in the fashion of a born and controversial politician. In Rome, Conte was aflame with emotion.

Some samples of his pain still reverberate as the new challenge of United threatens his increasingly precarious grip at Stamford Bridge.

He shook his head and said, "One of the most basic things in the game is that you must have desire and hunger to be a protagonist in every game. You cannot forget that for a minute because if you do you are lost.

"Our second-half performance was so bad it was painful to see. We are struggling for the kind of balance we achieved last season and some of this one.

"It was terrible to see the second half, when Roma had so much more hunger, desire and fight to beat us. They clearly deserved to win. They became the only team on the field and that was very hard to watch. It was so hard because you have players who have done so much and yet were against a team who were better in every part.

Competitive

"It means that in this season we have to dig very, very deep if we are to be at all competitive and fight for something that is important. We just can't play the game that we did here. If we can find hunger and desire again it will not be necessary to be part of such a game as this one.

"I can't repeat to the players too many times that we have to understand how difficult this season might become if we do not look at ourselves very closely and remember where we once were and how we have looked in Rome. We don't have much time to rediscover the right way that you always have to go in football."

Conte was staring at failure for the first time since annexing Serie A six years ago and you could see that he felt the pain in his bones. Dead man walking?

Maybe, maybe not, but one thing is certain. The oligarch can claim another head if he chooses but at some point, in all the millions he spends on football, he might just get time to remember the coach who fought so hard and so passionately to give him value for money.

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