Antonio Conte feels Chelsea have passed a big “psychological test” in the last week, having bounced back from a 2-0 defeat at Manchester United by beating title rivals Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday to reach the FA Cup final, before then defeating Southampton 4-2 to go to within just 12 points of clinching the title.
The Italian praised the resolve of his side in recovering from that setback, and said they “are ready to fight until the end” of a campaign that looks set to bring a double.
“Yes, I think that we passed a big, big step. A big psychological step after the defeat against United. Because, against United, we lost three points and then you had to prepare a semi-final against Tottenham. And then another tough game in the league. I think that, in that moment, we have had a really important test, psychological test, and our answer was very good.
“For this reason I must be pleased. But we must think this race is open. We reached the final in the FA Cup, which is a great incentive for us. But the other competition, the league, is totally open. But I think we are ready to fight until the end. Then we must be proud for our job, for what we are doing this season. But now it's normal. It's normal that we have to try to push until the end to keep this position.”
Chelsea were tested again on Tuesday night, as Southampton came from behind after Eden Hazard’s early goal to make it 1-1 and then really put the champions-elect under pressure, only for Gary Cahill to hit a clinching goal just before half-time.
“I think it was very important, otherwise we'd have gone into the changing-room at 1-1,” Conte said. “I think that it's not the same, but my speech would have been the same. But I'm pleased, also, for Gary. He scored a really important goal for us. Maybe it gave us more confidence for the second half. Now it's important, I repeat, to rest. We play two games very strong, and our effort was great. Was fantastic.
“I think the most important thing is to look at ourselves. Tonight was a big win for us. Above all when you had to play after two and a half days, after a really strong game against Tottenham when we reached the final of the Cup. You know the real importance for us, in England, for me and my players, is to reach this target. To play the final of the FA Cup.
“And also, now, for us it's very important to try to win the title. Today it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy. We faced a really strong team. They rested 10 days. I think they hadn't any pressure and, in this case, you can enjoy this type of game against the team at the top of the league. For us, it wasn't easy. But I'm pleased for the great effort, the fantastic effort of my players. They showed me great desire to win this game. Now it's important to rest tomorrow and then to prepare for another tough game against Everton.”
Conte also joked that Diego Costa is fulfilling the manager’s promise that he was saving his goals for the end of the season, after the Spanish striker ended an eight-game drought by scoring Chelsea’s final two clinching goals.
“Yes, it's normal for the strikers, for the forwards, that it is important to score. The goals are their life. But, for me, I've always said I've been pleased with his commitment, his work for the team. He always worked for the team. Sometimes he was unlucky in different circumstances, but I was always confident about him.
“After the Tottenham game, I said I'm sure he's keeping his goals for the final weeks of the season. Now he must continue. He's very important for us. His confidence is very important for us. He scored two very beautiful goals, good combination and technique between him and his team-mates.”