Chelsea manager Antonio Conte begins mind games with title rivals Tottenham

Miguel Delaney
The Independent
Antonio Conte's side must respond after Saturday's defeat to Crystal Palace: Getty
Antonio Conte's side must respond after Saturday's defeat to Crystal Palace: Getty

So far, Antonio Conte hasn’t had the need to say anything so pointed or inflammatory about opposition, so there hasn’t been the need to use that now-notorious phrase: ‘mind games’.

That might well have changed, and it doesn’t seem coincidental that it might have changed just after Chelsea suffer their first wobble of this title run-in with defeat to Crystal Palace, and before they play a potential season-changing game at home to Manchester City.

Conte refused to rule City out of the title race, but seemed more concerned with getting under the skin of Tottenham Hotspur, who are currently closest to Chelsea in the table, seven points behind and on something of a surge. The Italian said that while winning titles is “normal” for his club, it would be “great” for Spurs, who would not think that losing it is a “disaster” either.

Specifically asked whether this season will turn into a “battle of nerves” between Chelsea’s ability to stay on course and Tottenham’s to keep them under pressure, Conte said: “Yeah, but I think you have to put also Manchester City in this run. It's important to see the result tomorrow. 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. Don't forget this. But we are trying to change the situation. I think the difference between Chelsea and Tottenham is this: if you are at 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. 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.”

There all sorts of inferences that could be taken from those words and what he is trying to say about Spurs, but one thing is undeniable: winning has certainly been normal to Conte the player and manager, as revealed by his attitude to failure.

The Italian has claimed a total of eight domestic league medals across both strands of his career, and one Champions League as a former Juventus midfielder, but seemed so much more affected by defeats. He admitted he didn’t sleep for a week after Lazio hauled his Juve side in to win the title in 1999-2000, and that memories like that still fire him now, as he seeks to respond to Saturday with victory.

“Yes, it's true… but these experiences are very important. For this reason, I try to keep the concentration from the start until the end during the game. Football is wonderful for this reason. Anything can happen. I lost this title against Lazio, but [in 2001-02] we won the title against Inter in the last game. If Inter had won the game, they'd have won the title, but they lost and we beat Udinese and won the title. Football, I repeat, is wonderful. It gives a lot of joy, but sometimes... yeah, it's not always simple.”

“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.”

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