John Giles: Antonio Conte got his man but it’s hard to see him staying at the Bridge
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ANTONIO Conte had a stroke of luck when Romelu Lukaku ended a bitter internal debate at Stamford Bridge during the summer by declaring his intention to sign for Manchester United.
As a result, Conte’s choice, Alvaro Morata, became Chelsea’s choice but by default – not because he won a fight with Director of Football Michael Emelano.
The conflict of wills at the club pushed Conte towards the door and there’s a good chance that if Chelsea had not secured Morata’s signature, the Italian would have been on his bike.
I think he took a long, hard look at his position over the summer and it would not have taken much to push him over the edge. In the end, he got Morata and made the call to stay.
All of this came about because he had to replace Diego Costa and I’m convinced that Conte knew he wanted to offload his problem player as early as last Christmas and babied him through the final months of the season .
Costa wanted to go to China, was persuaded not to and then sulked. Conte got him back playing and tolerated a petulant player because of the goals he could contribute. But I would be fairly sure that he set about bringing Morata to his team around the same time and Chelsea are lucky he did.
Lukaku has been playing well for United. He’s a much improved player and he’s flourishing in Jose Mourinho’s set-up. The biggest advance he has made is in his support play. In his first few seasons, he showed he could score goals but didn’t contribute much to the team.
He’s not a natural footballer and has to work at his game but he’s obviously working very hard. He now looks a good bet to match his 25-goal haul from last season.
But Conte didn’t want him. That was the bottom line. The Italian has his own vision of how Chelsea should play and Morata was the man he wanted. Events have proven him right up to now.
This is a wonderful example of how destructive interference can be to a manager. Emelano tried to insert a player he fancied into the Chelsea team and if he had succeeded, Conte would have had to alter his vision to suit Lukaku and the Director of Football.
It must have been maddening for Conte to see a third party meddling with his squad and it was no surprise that while talking to Italian radio over the weekend, he suggested that his next step in football would be to return to Italy.
What was interesting about his remarks was the, I’m sure, tongue in cheek comment about becoming a Director of Football instead of a manager.
This was a clear reference to his own predicament and the fact that the Director of Football position is a job without responsibility – much easier than standing in the firing line.
I don’t believe for a second that Conte would want to be a shadow in the background, wheeling and dealing.
He’s a hands-on manager and despite all of the things which happened to him during the last few months, he has shown his ability by settling his payers down and winning games.
Conte has two big matches in front of him with the Champions League fixture against Atletico in Madrid tonight and then a huge Premier League clash with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Saturday.
The first will give us a better idea about Chelsea’s Champions League credentials than the 6-0 hammering of FK Qarabag did a few weeks ago and the second at Stamford Bridge will provide a very good comparison between Guardiola’s swashbuckling team and Conte’s defensive instincts.
Defence is the one area of Guardiola’s squad which has been suspect and Chelsea will do everything they can to blunt City’s talented forwards.
And if Chelsea do manage to smother City’s all-out attack, with Morata in such devastating form and Eden Hazard fit again, Guardiola’s defence will receive a proper test.
Over the long haul, I find it hard to imagine that Conte will hang around at Chelsea. I’ll bet he made up his mind in July that his stay at Chelsea would be a short one.