With their title defence having died a death months ago and rumblings of discontent from the changing room getting ever louder, Wednesday’s Champions League showdown against Barcelona looks certain to be a defining moment in Chelsea’s season.
For Antonio Conte’s future too, perhaps. The Italian, who took the Premier League by storm last season, has cut a testy figure in recent weeks, his knife-between-the-teeth zeal having occasionally threatened to bubble over into something altogether more destructive in recent weeks.
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There have been so many thinly-veiled digs at his Stamford Bridge hierarchy that most of us have lost count, while his tactics in recent weeks have frustrated fans and players alike. Defeat at the Camp Nou would cast a new shadow over his tenure, with rumours about a summer return to Italy continuing to circulate.
That could mean fresh summer turmoil for Chelsea, but would be welcomed by one of his former colleagues, who feels Conte has much to contribute in his homeland. Alessandro Del Piero knows what makes the Blues manager tick better than most, having played alongside him at Juventus for 11 years, and told Yahoo Sport UK that he would be delighted to see his former team-mate back on the peninsula.
“We need him in Italy, as a coach and as a personality,” said Del Piero, speaking in Mexico City at the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken®. “He won an incredible title last year, but it’s not easy to repeat that. I’m not surprised that he’s had great success in England, [but] let’s see how it goes at the end of the year. We have a lot of incredible Italian coaches around the world. We should try to bring them back and make our football better.”
He is not wrong: young hotshot Massimo Carrera is shining at Spartak Moscow, Roberto Mancini’s Zenit Saint Petersburg are ticking along nicely in the Europa League and Claudio Ranieri is still going strong, now with Nantes in France. But Conte is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, and his success in the dugout has come as little surprise to his former colleague.
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“He was a fighter as a player,” continued Del Piero. “He was a great professional, always taking care of every single detail, so he’s reflecting as a coach what he was as a player. I spent one year with him as a coach and many years as a team-mate, so I know the passion he has and how much time he puts into his job. That’s one of the things that makes him different to other people.”
Del Piero will no doubt be watching events in Catalonia will interest, with thoughts already turning to possible quarter-final opponents for his beloved Juventus. So impressive against Tottenham at Wembley, the Old Lady are still considered dark horses – partly because of the obvious merits of Barça, Manchester City and Real Madrid, but perhaps also due to a lingering feeling that this side’s best chance(s) of winning the competition are now in the rear-view mirror. Two finals have come and gone in three seasons, and the playing squad is notably weaker than previous iterations.
Yet what Massimiliano Allegri’s charges do not lack is conviction, as anyone who witnessed that warlord embrace between Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon at Wembley would attest. And for Del Piero, who lifted the trophy with Juve in 1996, this gives them a fighting chance of making up for recent near-misses.
“In order to win the Champions League, you have to be perfect,” he explained. “When I say perfect, I don’t just mean no injuries, or lucky draws, or whatever; I mean you have to be perfect inside. When you think about the competition at the beginning of the season, you write down something inside yourself, inside the team. It’s a desire, a passion – a combination of a lot of things.
“They went so close in the last three years and I hope this will be their season. For them and for us; as a Juve fan and former captain, of course I’m close to them.”
Over the past 11 years, the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken® has visited 26 countries across the Americas, Africa and Asia, letting hundreds of thousands of fans who can normally only watch the competition on television, get close to the trophy and share the drama with some of the most iconic players of the game.