Antonio Conte praises 'underdogs' Chelsea for competing on two fronts while 'in transition'

Miguel Delaney
The Independent
Conte likened this season to his first in charge of Juventus: Getty
Conte likened this season to his first in charge of Juventus: Getty

It was once said by one of Stamford Bridge’s more famous previous coaches that there could be no “transition” season at a club like Chelsea due to the demands but, while Antonio Conte evidently doesn’t feel the same, it seems that he works with that very mindset.

The Italian used precisely that word to describe his team this season, and argued how that makes any triumph all the greater, and would ensure a potential double is a superior achievement to that won by the club in 2009-10.

It was a break from the polite humility that has genuinely stood out from Conte this season, but that was perhaps understandable after what was one of Chelsea’s most satisfying and rousing performances of the season, in the 4-2 FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham Hotspur.

The 47-year-old doesn’t usually like to overplay any win because he wants to keep players focused until the job is actually done. Following a week where there had been a lot of talk over whether Tottenham were actually a better team and how fragile Chelsea’s season had become, however, he seemed especially keen to remind people of just how impressive their - and his - work has been and how he has had much less time with his squad than Mauricio Pochettino. He also stressed that, just like with his first title at Juventus in 2011-12, Chelsea have been “underdogs” as they close in on the title.

Conte had been asked about some under-the-radar comments on Friday, and why he thinks that a double of Premier League and FA Cup this season would be “different” to the last one claimed by Chelsea, under compatriot Carl Ancelotti in 2009-10. While keen to stress that Ancelotti is “the best Italian coach”, he reasserted that this campaign hardly provided the best conditions for success: Chelsea had come from 10th in 2015-16 and, with so many senior players leaving, were effectively in transition.

That, naturally, makes any triumph all the more impressive.

“I think that now at Chelsea we are in a period of transition,” Conte said. “In this season, we have lost [Branislav] Ivanovic, [John Obi] Mikel and next season we lose John Terry. We are talking about players who wrote the history of this club.

“They won a lot. Now we have to find the right substitutes for these players and then work to put these players at the same level. I think that in the period with Carlo - and Carlo is the best Italian coach, I have great respect for him - he arrived at Chelsea when they had a really strong squad. Now we are building. We are building something important. We need time.

“It’s not easy when you lose these type of players but we need to show patience to build the foundations and then improve every season. I repeat, if you ask me last season, after our 10th place, and this season you stay on top of the table and you reach the FA Cup final, but you didn’t change a lot, I think it’s great. But we must continue to work and improve.

“For me, it is very important to develop our football. If you compare our team with Tottenham’s, Pochettino has worked for three years. I started to work only seven or eight months ago. If we are able to take the right player to improve this squad and to continue to work with these players, we can improve for sure.

“In my first season in Juventus we won the title, but we started as underdogs, and, yeah, if we want to be honest, in this season, it's happening the same because I think Chelsea, at the start of this season, not one person thought to fight for the title in this season, for many reasons, I don't want to explain why, but then with Juventus, after the first season, the second season, the third season, I think our team was very, very strong, if you compare our team with the other team, for this reason, in one season we reached 102 points, the record in Italy. Here, you have a lot of competitors, and a lot of strong teams, with a great squad and I think it's more difficult now, to win the league.”

Chelsea only beat Spurs in a sensational match after Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas had been brought on as substitutes - with the Belgian playmaker scoring the game-breaking third goal to make it 3-2 - but Conte insisted they were not rested because he valued the match less than Tuesday’s home league game against Southampton.

Hazard and Costa came off the bench to change the game (Getty)
Hazard and Costa came off the bench to change the game (Getty)

“For us, this game, it was very important to reach the final of the FA Cup, for me it's a great achievement because for me it's my first season here, and to reach this target it's great, it's great for my players.

“I'm telling you this because we started without Hazard and Costa, but not because I undervalued this game, because we have to play another game on Tuesday, and then against Everton, this week is crucial for us and for this reason I prepared the plan, I involved my players in this plan because when you have to take these strong decisions, it's important to give the right explanation why, why, and to be ready and I think our plan work very well because... not only for Eden and Costa but also for Cesc.

“We must be pleased for this but I repeat now it's very important to rest, to recover, because on Tuesday we have to play a really important game for us.”

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