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Antonio Conte blamed the air conditioning, which is not the sort of line that can be expected to kick off a piece on Chelsea’s derby against Arsenal on Sunday. Stick with it. The Chelsea manager has a throat infection, he has been on antibiotics since Thursday and he is in a race against time to recover his fitness.
It is significant, Conte acknowledged, because no manager in the Premier League – or the whole of European football? – relies more heavily on his vocal cords during a match. As Conte croaked, a little menacingly, through his press conference on Friday, it was put to him that at least his players might be in for an easier ride. “I prefer to recover,” he said. “I hope to solve the situation, otherwise it will be a problem for me.”
How did it happen? Had Conte run out of the special throat pastilles that he orders from his native Italy? “In this case, I think the air conditioner was stronger than my sweets,” he said. “I turn the air conditioning off when I get into my office but when you stay on the team bus, as I have done, I risk a lot because I suffer with the air conditioning.”
Something else has stuck in Conte’s throat. It has been the results he has experienced against Arsenal since his arrival at Chelsea in the summer of last year. He has played them four times and lost three, if the Community Shield in August is factored in, and Conte does factor it in. Like many managers from mainland Europe, he considers the showpiece fixture to be a chance for silverware.
Chelsea lost the Community Shield to Arsenal on penalties, after Pedro had been sent off in the 80th minute for a lunge at Mohamed Elneny, as his team led 1-0, but Conte is haunted by the reverse from the FA Cup final last May. Chelsea also had a man dismissed that day – Victor Moses received a second yellow card for diving in the 68th minute, as his team trailed 1-0 – but Conte’s sense of injustice had been fired in the opening minutes. Alexis Sánchez charged down the ball with his hand but there was no whistle and the Arsenal forward ran through to score.
“I remember very well that game and we were a bit unlucky,” Conte said. “If you remember, the first goal was very strange. I am sure that this goal was [going to be] disallowed. Instead, we started the game 1-0 down. We tried to change the game, then a red card and then, with 10 men, we drew level. But then we concede another goal. When you lose there is always disappointment.”
When Conte loses, it stays with him for days and, more significantly, nights – when he is plagued by insomnia. Arsenal’s Cup final victory in May denied him the dream of a league and Cup double in his first season outside Italy. His team had also crashed 3-0 in the league at the Emirates Stadium last September, although they did beat Arsenal 3-1 at Stamford Bridge in February.
So, would revenge be in Conte’s thoughts on Sunday? “I hope to finish the game with 11 players, yes,” Conte replied, pointedly. “Then, during the game, I think the best team wins. In the last two games against Arsenal, I think you have to see very well if there was the red card or no.”
It was clear that Conte had an issue with both sendings-off, even if most onlookers felt Moses had to go for his dive. Pedro’s straight red was more of a shock. Conte went on to acknowledge that the best teams were driven to respond to setbacks. “Yes, I think that,” he said. “I always see a good mentality from my players. Remember, after the bad start to the season with the Burnley defeat, I’ve had a good answer from my players.”
Indeed he has. Since the 3-2 loss to Burnley on the opening weekend of the league season, when Chelsea had Gary Cahill and Cesc Fàbregas sent off, they have won each of their four matches in all competitions. Conte is obsessed with momentum and, slowly but surely, Chelsea are building it.
Conte talked of how the summer signing Álvaro Morata was adapting well to the team’s style while he noted that Eden Hazard was “very close to being 100% fit”. Hazard had ankle surgery over the summer and he has featured as a substitute in Chelsea’s last two games. “His patience is paying off,” Conte said.
Patience has been in short supply at Arsenal in recent times, where crisis seems to lurk around every corner, but Conte will not underestimate them. His history sees to that. “For sure, Arsenal is a big rival for the title,” he said. “They only lost one player over the summer – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. They have a really good squad to fight for something important. It’s a massive game for us.”