Antonio Conte’s reaction said it all. As Jose Mourinho waited mischievously at the home dugout for a handshake that never came, the Chelsea coach furiously clenched his fists in the air, celebrated with supporters and hugged each player individually. It was clear how much Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United meant.
The hosts entered the weekend under huge pressure after a disenchanting 3-0 Champions League reversal in Rome on Tuesday, but despite looking leggy in the eternal city, they were the more assertive and domineering side as the Red Devils gassed after a rarely spotted adventurous start. Alvaro Morata’s superb header earned them the win and pointed to an underlying resilience amidst the stormy clouds over Stamford Bridge.
Conte has cut a restless and frankly annoyed figure for much of the season thus far. The Italian was clearly irked by what he saw as substandard transfer business conducted by the club’s technical staff and has expressed as much in press conferences. Results haven’t gone entirely his way and Chelsea trailed runaway league leaders Manchester City by 12 points before Sunday’s game. In every press conference, Conte has had to field difficult questions from journalists regarding his future and the speculation linking other managers with his position hasn’t helped his mood.
“There is a lot of bullshit. If I see the past it happened the same with a lot of managers. A lot of bullshit,” he responded a couple of weeks ago. “They try to create problems between me, the club and the players.. If someone is happy to continue to write this, I answer very well in the past. I am answering very well about these different issues.”
Conte’s angry rebuttal was only natural regardless of how much truth lies in the press talk. In Chelsea’s recent game against Watford, Sky’s commentators did their upmost to drum up the narrative. The word ‘crisis’ was frequently mentioned and they pointed out murmurs of discontent within the Chelsea fanbase – as Stamford Bridge sang “Antonio, Antonio” in appreciation of their manager. When the champions trailed in the second half, the focus shifted to Mourinho and the ‘harrowing’ final embers of his second reign at the club. In the end though, they turned things around and secured three points.
A section of the media seem to be fervently doing their best to draw a comparison with Mourinho’s final season. And while there is clear tension between Conte and the board which will in all probability push him to leave the club next summer, there are quite a few differences between now and the infamous debacle of the 2015/16 campaign.
The performance at the weekend illustrated that when Chelsea start with their best eleven they are a match for most. N’Golo Kante’s return allowed both Cesc Fabregas and Bakayoko to flourish, and Cesar Azpilicueta’s reinstatement as a central defender secured things at the back. Furthermore, the application and effort of the players belied a team still committed, still hungry and still willing to go to bat for their manager.
Injury issues to key squad members and less time on the training pitch have obviously effected consistency, but unlike when Mourinho essentially washed his hands and absolved himself of any blame in those fractured late months in charge, Conte’s competitive instincts prevent him from easing up. He also doesn’t give up on players and throw them in the scrapheap like Mourinho did with Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohammed Salah – all of whom have turned into pretty decent players. Conte has already won double the number of matches Mourinho did in late 2015 and is still in both the Champions League and League Cup.
That group were bereft of any belief and fighting spirit, almost accepting their fate. None of that drained confidence has seeped into this run even though issues have arisen, which is largely a consequence of Conte’s relentlessness and focus on the task at hand.
Another added layer of intrigue is the departure of Michael Emenalo, director of football and close Roman Abramovich confidante. Contrary to speculation though, those around the club claim that the coach’s relationship with Emenalo was far better than suggested. Conte spent much of the summer at logger heads with club director Marina Granovskaia and Emenalo was seen as the – no pun intended – bridge between the two.
The owner paid a visit to Chelsea’s Cobham training ground on Friday, which is usually a precursor to the manager vacating his position. Another coach more famed for his diplomacy, Carlo Ancelotti, was less than enamoured by the Russian’s meddling when he was in the dugout at Stamford Bridge. With that being said, Conte doesn’t seem to fear the sack. He dropping alleged Abramovich favourite David Luiz, apparently less than pleased by the Brazilian’s defending in the Olimpico. He took on Diego Costa and won that battle, so regardless of that eventuality, he intends to do things his way.