Conte unites Blues family with festive cheer
Crystal Palace 0 Chelsea 1
The Chelsea staff who attended the club's Christmas party last Thursday night anticipated the normal video message from the manager thanking them for their efforts and wishing them the best for the New Year.
But the receptionists, door attendants, security staff and workers at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea's Cobham training ground instead got a surprise audience with the man who cannot stop winning.
Antonio Conte had in fact filmed the traditional video message, but decided he should be at the staff party himself. The Italian gave a speech in which he thanked everybody for their hard work and told them they are all part of what he is trying to achieve. In total, he stayed for around two hours.
Less than 48 hours after Conte had joined in the festive spirit, his Chelsea team equalled a club record by recording their 11th successive Premier League victory with yet another performance that underlined the 47-year-old's incredible impact.
Just 12 months ago, Chelsea had been a club at which the staff had done their best to avoid eye contact with then manager Jose Mourinho, who accused his players of betraying him after what proved to be his final game in charge.
The fans turned on the players, branding some of them "rats" and the dressing room was full of cliques and friendship groups that were suspicious of one another.
Conte knew morale had been low and that relationships needed mending, but the defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal earlier this season emphasised the fact that it would take more than just a change in formation to turn around Chelsea's fortunes.
While working on the new three-at-the-back system that has been so successful, Conte also instigated off-the-field changes to promote a feeling of togetherness and rebuild team spirit at all levels. He set up a supper club for the players and coaches to go out and eat as a group at, among other places, London's trendy Nobu restaurant.
"I like to win and to see my teams have two bad defeats - we deserved two bad defeats - I didn't like this and I tried to find the right solution on the pitch and outside of the pitch," said Conte. "We found the right solution with the players to explain that we all deserve better than last season.
"Now, the best thing you can see is players with great talent, with great commitment, putting their talent into the team. It's fantastic for me, but also for the fans, to see this commitment, this will to fight for every ball. This is fantastic."
The results have been spectacular. The cliques have been dismantled, the players and staff trust each other again and, crucially, the team is more important than any individual. Diego Costa, who scored Chelsea's winner against Crystal Palace with a 43rd-minute header, went 11 games in all competitions without being booked before finally receiving the caution at Selhurst Park that rules him out of the December 26 game against Bournemouth.
At the final whistle, Conte marched triumphantly on to the pitch where all his players waited and celebrated with them all individually in front of Chelsea's travelling fans. The scene was one of togetherness.
In the dressing room afterwards, Conte rewarded his players by telling them they had three days off and he would see them again on Wednesday to start preparations for St Stephen's Day.
Despite being banned for the Bournemouth game after earning their fifth bookings of the season, Costa and N'Golo Kante will be required to meet up with the rest of the squad on Christmas Day. As the staff found out last week, Conte wants his Chelsea to be a family. (© Daily Telegraph, London)