When Antonio Conte got home on Saturday evening after Chelsea surprisingly lost to Crystal Palace, he couldn’t relax, and certainly couldn’t go back out for dinner. Before he could do anything, he first had to understand how and why his side had lost, so just had to go through the misery of a defeat again and watch the whole match again.
“For me, it’s very difficult to go out, to have a dinner,” Conte said. “I have to reflect on the defeat… I needed to understand the reason, to understand our performance. I needed to take the right information about our game and I tried to watch the game early.
“We had a dinner with my daughter, my wife and my brother, also. Then I tried, also, to watch the television.”
And what did he watch?
“Football. Football, football... but my wife knows me very well. She understands my mood in that moment.”
Wednesday’s opposition manager Pep Guardiola would also understand. The Manchester City manager lives the same way. Take the last time he played Conte's Chelsea, a 3-1 defeat in December.
“Believe me, I watched the game many times.”
This is the type of irritable perfectionism that powers repeat title-winners, and that could yet power this season’s title run-in. Saturday’s defeat might have suddenly created some doubt about a Chelsea that were cruising, but it seems to have just fired Conte to obsessively ensure no doubt will enter his team, to fix whatever it was that went wrong. Guardiola would understand that too, as he similarly seeks to undo them by firing his team.
“I don’t think so,” the Catalan said, when asked if Chelsea’s confidence would be affected. “They will be more focused. When you win 10, 11 or 12 games in a row, the danger is to be relaxed. You are winning and have a points advantage. But when you lose a game, after that the warnings are there.”
Conte has had plenty of warnings from his own career as a player and manager, and spoke on the eve of Wednesday’s crunch match about how he couldn’t sleep for a week when Lazio hauled in his Juventus to win the 1999-2000 title when he was a player. In a way also typical of repeat winners, Conte seems to espouse that Roy Keane mentality of being much more motivated by defeat, of having the failures linger in the memory much longer than any of the successes.
“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.”
That mentality is another reason why Conte’s decision to suddenly comment on Tottenham Hotspur was so conspicuous - to, if you like, engage in mind games - beyond the fact that Mauricio Pochettino’s side have closed the gap at the top for the first time in months. The Chelsea manager seemed to so specifically hone in on the fact Spurs just aren’t used to winning, and one fair inference is that he means they won’t have that drive to properly haul the leaders in, that they might again get a bit light-headed at being so high.
Conte also refused to rule City out of that race despite a gap of 11 points between them before even going into the game. He and Guardiola were full of praise for each other at the same time, with the Catalan describing Conte as someone he learns so much from watching and ‘maybe the best’ manager around... but he didn’t think Chelsea were the better team back in December. That’s what he gleaned from watching it so many times.
“We were much, much better,” Guardiola said. “I’m sorry Antonio, but we were. We deserved to win… There were unbelievable penalties that did not happen in that game and many other things. In this kind of situation against big teams, influenced a lot. In general we'd like to be further up, but how they try and how they play, I'm so satisfied.”
It was telling that Conte came to much the same conclusion from rewatching Chelsea’s defeat to Palace.
“After I'd watched the game, I wasn't happy because I think we didn't deserve to lose the game for many reasons: we created many chances to score goals; many situations I saw after the game and not during the game... but this is football.”
This is also why Wednesday’s game at Stamford Bridge could be even better than the sides’ December meeting at the Etihad. That encounter may have ended 3-1 to Chelsea but, before it got to that score, it was one of the most relentlessly exhilarating and tactically exacting games of the season, a supreme clash of high-end approaches. Wednesday’s rematch is likely to see all of that, but maybe super-charged by the higher stakes, stakes that will distill the drive of these managers.
Chelsea must win to maintain their title-winning aura, to prevent the development of any doubt in their squad or confidence in the title pack; to rediscover their rhythm. City must meanwhile just win for the first time in four games, both to get their season back on track and maybe even recharge their title challenge, but also to stay on course for the top four.
To manage that, both managers are going to have to again figure out the optimum way to take each other on, while also cancelling out the influence of quality players who so optimise their systems.
Guardiola spoke of the need to play to his side’s strengths and keep attacking in the way they didn’t in costly drop-offs away to Arsenal and Monaco for example, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that happens because they don’t really have the players at the base of midfield to properly control a game in the way his best teams have done. That is going to be even more complicated against a Chelsea he describes as ‘controlling a lot of aspects’, and who have N’Golo Kante right there in the middle disrupting everything.
Conte meanwhile really must decide whether to stick or twist against a team guaranteed to come at them, and how intensely to do it. If Chelsea decide to sit back more as in the manner of that December game, there is the danger that City could finally score the goals they deserved to in that match and have threatened to for some time. If Chelsea look to impose their game with higher pressing in the way Conte would presumably idealise, though, they may leave the space in behind that sleek forwards like Leroy Sane can be devastating in.
Whatever happens, it’s highly unlikely to be a game that allows anyone to relax, let alone the managers.