Friday 23 March 2018

James Lawton: Conte's passion and judgement vindicated once again as Chelsea's fire burns bright

Antonio Conte celebrates Chelsea's win over AC Madrid on Wednesday Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
Antonio Conte celebrates Chelsea's win over AC Madrid on Wednesday Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

In the Italian autumn, almost as much as the one stirring the leaves along Chelsea's King's Road, every little breeze seems to be murmuring the name of Antonio Conte.

It seems to be saying that he may be something more than the football coach of the moment, that indeed he has emerged as a classic football hero, a man who has engaged the game not only in his brain and his heart but also has it coursing through all of his veins. And with his name, there is now a full set of intriguing questions.

Number one concerns how long will he stay at a Chelsea where he has found that success for a coach, however stunning, is no guarantee of holding an edge over backroom opinion on such vital matters as player recruitment - a frustration that has already led to his no doubt ironic aside that his next job might be as a director of football.

Director of football? He is more likely to take Holy Orders. But how firmly has he grasped, as his predecessor Jose Mourinho came to do so bitterly, that you can hold Stamford Bridge in the palm of your hand but it doesn't matter if Roman Abramovich chooses to look in another direction.

What is certain is that his collision with Manchester City's Pep Guardiola at Stamford Bridge tonight has become rather more than a test of coaching excellence, of apparently endless tactical and emotional invention.

Conte v Guardiola is more than a superior coaching contest. It is the hungriest challenger against an established champion. The contender is plainly moving to a new level of effectiveness and today's outcome might just give some early guide to the potential scale of his success.

On Wednesday, the kind of masterful touchline direction and unfettered passion which shaped Chelsea's at times masterful triumph over Atletico in Madrid placed no obvious limits on the man who has so brilliantly invaded the coaching elite.

Naturally, the Italians are claiming him for their own and are confident that he will return soon enough to one of the great clubs, Juventus or Milan or Inter.

Meanwhile, they are hardly surprised that he has made such an impact at Chelsea. A serial winner at Juve, he is a little like the limestone around his home city of Lecce in the south, which is famous for its suitability in the making of statues. It is soft and adaptable stone. You can make of it a warrior or an angel and in the case of Conte perhaps a bit of both.

That was an image hard to quarrel with on the touchline of Atletico's new stadium, where the formidable Diego Simeone was for once made to look like a man not only outwitted but outfought, and this despite Atletico going in front.

So perfect was the Chelsea performance, and so brilliantly orchestrated by Conte right down to his match-winning substitution of the heroic Alvaro Morata by Michy Batshuayi, it was tempting to believe that we were looking at one of the great statements by a coach of the football of today.

It was almost as if Conte was saying that he had taken the players he had been given, plus his inspired belief in Morata, and was showing that whatever the outcome in the spring he could walk away with his head high.

His ambition, already flagged up quite luminously, is to show what a coach can do if he believes in himself and has the knack of transmitting that confidence to his players. Look, he might be saying, if you believe in your players enough and get that across to them with enough force it makes them run harder, dig deeper and if he needed an example of this it surely came against a gifted Atletico team.

In all respects Conte's passion and judgement were vindicated to an extraordinary degree. The injured Eden Hazard has been brought on close to his devastating best, Morata scored his seventh goal in seven games, and if it was necessary to find a symbol of the Italian's confirmed judgment it was surely the downcast face of Diego Costa when Batshuayi delivered the killer blow at the close of a match-ending sequence of nine passes.

Costa scored goals for Conte but he didn't do what Morata is doing. He didn't embrace the idea of a driven, united team, and it was not hard to understand the special fervour which went into Conte's embrace of the man from Madrid when he headed in a superbly flighted chip by Hazard.

"A performance like this gives me great warmth and satisfaction," Conte declared. "I'm pleased for all the players because to play with this spirit and personality is not easy when you go one down in a place like this. Atletico are a very difficult team to come back against and we did it so well."

It was the Conte ethos given the life for it he craves. When he made his first appearance at Chelsea, after three straight Serie A wins with Juventus and re-invigorating the Italian national team, he was hardly coy about the demands he would make. He said: "The first thing you should know about me is that I am a worker who likes to work. I only know the verb to work, work and work."

He also announced: "Football has changed, above all in England, where you play with an intensity that is supersonic, so you have to support talent with strength to cope with contact, speed and technique."

And, he might have added, an extraordinarily intense commitment. Pep Guardiola was certainly served fair warning this week. It was that no-one, including his dynamic Manchester City, is safe in the fierce glare - and ambition - of Antonio Conte.

Irish Independent

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