In the lexicon of put-downs it was hardly brutal but there was a pointed reminder yesterday from Antonio Conte to Tottenham Hotspur as to the ground they occupy among the Premier League’s most powerful clubs.
“I think the difference between Chelsea and Tottenham is this: if you stay in Chelsea and win it's normal. If you stay in Tottenham, if you win it's great, great, but if you lose… it's not a disaster, no? Not a disaster,” the Chelsea manager said, adding: “Because you find a lot of situations to explain a good season. But, I repeat, in this season, us and Tottenham stay in the same level. Chelsea were underdogs at the start of the season, but now we are top and we want to keep this position.”
With Chelsea facing Manchester City at home Conte was quick to include Pep Guardiola’s side in, what he claimed, were the three clubs now fighting it out for the title.
“I think you have to put also Manchester City in this run,” he said when asked whether, with the lead reduced to seven points by Spurs, it may come down to a battle of nerves between Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino’s side even if City are a further four points in arrears.
“It's important to see the result tomorrow,” he added. “But this run must give you enjoyment. It must make you proud to be in this run. Also because, I repeat, don't forget nobody thought Chelsea, in this season, would fight for the title.”
Given Spurs have not won it since 1961 and Chelsea are favourites to take it for the fifth time in the 14 years of Roman Abramovich’s ownership, and given the far greater financial muscle exerted from Stamford Bridge then evidentially there is an obvious expectation that Chelsea will be more regular runners in the title race.
Conte has already produced an impressive body of work in lifting them from last season’s 10th place, and without the reinforcements he hoped for in the transfer market, and he is right. Few tipped Chelsea. But he also knows that having lost to Crystal Palace, albeit while playing well, and hosting City it is possible that with Spurs away to Swansea City and at home to Watford on Saturday lunchtime Chelsea’s lead could be cut to a point before the kick-off again away to Bournemouth that evening.
Mind games? Maybe so. It is a sport Conte usually does not turn to. But he knows that this is not just the business end of the season but where the psychological blows can also be landed. The Italian has also been here before. A career of outstanding achievement – as a player and a manager – has also been studded with incredible near-misses and crushing disappointment. Conte won five Italian league titles as a player with Juventus and a further three as coach; he won the Champions League as a player - but also lost three finals and lost a World Cup Final and European Championships Final as a player for Italy. If those had been turned into wins then a brilliant career would have been simply extraordinary.
What hurt, possibly most of all, was a collapse at Juventus when Conte was the captain and senior pro – and Carlo Ancelotti was coach – back in 1999-2000 when they had a seven-point lead with six games to go only to be beaten to the title by Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Lazio. Conte later said he did not sleep for a week and that the experience shaped his managerial career.
“Yes, it's true,” he again confirmed. “When you play in these teams, it's normal to have good experiences, positive experiences, but also negative experiences. I won one Champions League final and lost three. You think that's not the same? It is. It's the same. It's not easy to accept the defeats. But defeat is part of our job, part of our culture. You must accept it, but also try in the future to evolve away from defeats. I know only one way: work and work.”
Conte worked after last Saturday’s loss. There was a dinner with his wife, Elisabetta, daughter, Vittoria, and his brother Gianluca, who is an assistant first-team coach at Chelsea, but he also reviewed the match. “I have to go through what happened, and then to restart,” Conte said.
Chelsea defeated City 3-1 away last December in what turned into a feisty encounter with Sergio Aguero red-carded for a poor challenge on David Luiz – who is still receiving treatment for the knee injury he suffered.
As disappointing as Pep Guardiola’s first campaign has been at City there is an acceptance that his team can beat anyone. It makes the fixture all the more intriguing plus, also, Guardiola has never lost twice in the league in the same season to one team.
There is a clear points target for Conte. “It's normal with 27 points available, anything can happen,” he said. “We need 21 points to win the league mathematically. We are in a position that nobody thought that Chelsea could fight this season for the title. But...we want to keep this position.” And keep Spurs in theirs.