Conte looks to win­ning mid­field part­ner­ship

Den­mark man­ager be­lieves the only way to play foot­ball is to at­tack teams and score goals

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - DO­MINIC FI­FIELD

To­mor­row Chelsea v Manch­ester United Stam­ford Bridge, 4.30pm Sky Sports Main

An­to­nio Conte is con­sid­er­ing re­unit­ing the mid­field part­ner­ship that helped in­spire Le­ices­ter City’s im­prob­a­ble Pre­mier League tri­umph two sea­sons ago af­ter pair­ing Danny Drinkwa­ter and N’Golo Kanté in train­ing be­fore to­mor­row’s visit of Manch­ester United.

The Chelsea head coach, who is seek­ing an im­me­di­ate pos­i­tive re­sponse af­ter his side were thrashed by Roma in mid­week, has been de­nied the op­por­tu­nity to field both play­ers to­gether this sea­son be­cause of in­jury.

Drinkwa­ter suc­cumbed early to a calf com­plaint from which he has only just re­cov­ered, and has yet to start a Pre­mier League game since his £35 mil­lion (¤39m) move in Au­gust.

Kanté has been ab­sent since dam­ag­ing a ham­string in France’s World Cup qual­i­fy­ing vic­tory over –Bul­garia last month. The French­man has been back in full train­ing for more than a week and might have fea­tured at the Sta­dio Olimpico, only to in­di­cate he did not feel ready.

The club’s med­i­cal staff will check on Kanté be­fore kick-off but the 26-year-old is ex­pected to line up against United and has worked along­side Drinkwa­ter in train­ing.

Pro­gress­ing well

“N’Golo is pro­gress­ing well,” said Conte. “We have also Satur­day and then I’ll take the best de­ci­sion for N’Golo and for the team. But we are talk­ing about an im­por­tant player.”

Conte re­vealed Ro­man Abramovich watched train­ing last Sun­day in the wake of the 1-0 win at Bournemouth, with the owner hav­ing been at Cob­ham this week. The cham­pi­ons are nine points off Manch­ester City in the league, al­beit still in fourth place, and the hu­mil­i­a­tion at Roma prompted the head coach to ques­tion, both pub­licly and pri­vately, his play­ers’ com­mit­ment and hunger to de­fend their ti­tle. He has since claimed the team’s malaise will demon­strate whether the play­ers “are win­ners or losers”.

In foot­ball, Age Hareide sug­gests, the pain of de­feat lingers much longer than the joy of vic­tory. And as the 64 year-old pre­pares his Den­mark side for the up­com­ing play-off games against Ire­land, he is still af­flicted by his near misses in qual­i­fy­ing with Nor­way and the Cham­pi­ons League maul­ing his Malmo side en­dured just be­fore he left for Copen­hagen. Get­ting to Rus­sia, he says, will fi­nally heal the wounds.

There is no great shame in those oc­ca­sions when he and his teams have come up short. Nor­way lost a play­off for the World Cup in 2006 to a very good Czech side.

Per­haps more painfully, Den­mark missed out on au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion for Euro2008 af­ter be­ing beaten at home by a Turk­ish side that would push Ger­many all the way in the tour­na­ment’s semi-fi­nals.

Malmo, mean­while, were a big suc­cess story by Swedish stan­dards in that they twice qual­i­fied for the group stages of the Cham­pi­ons League a cou­ple of sea­sons back un­der his lead­er­ship. How­ever, once there the re­al­ity of cop­ing with life on the same stage as the con­ti­nent’s very best sides hit home with a vengeance.

“Yes,” he says with a heavy sigh as he thinks back on a dif­fi­cult cam­paign that cul­mi­nated in an 8-0 de­feat at the Bern­abeu, “it is very hard to com­pete.”

Per­haps the most dis­ap­point­ing thing for the veteran Nor­we­gian – he has led four dif­fer­ent clubs to league ti­tles in three dif­fer­ent coun­tries – was the way his sides strug­gled to score goals at the higher level.

Go­ing for­ward

“I have al­ways been very of­fen­sively minded as a coach,” says the man who guided Brondby and Rosen­borg to 5-0 ag­gre­gate wins over Shel­bourne and Bo­hemi­ans re­spec­tively.

“I want to at­tack the play, at­tack the teams. I think the most pur­pose of foot­ball is to score goals; that is the same in­ten­tion that I have whether it is a club team or a na­tional team. Try­ing to go for­ward, try­ing to score goals; the best way to win games is that way.

“Some teams can de­fend and take one or two chances, but that’s a pa­tience game, and I have no pa­tience. I want to go for­ward.”

He rat­tles off the var­i­ous for­ma­tions he has em­ployed with the teams he has coached down the years but “it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter in the end”.

“What mat­ters to me is that I want to get into the last third as quickly as pos­si­ble, in the pass­ing way or another.

“You have to vary your tac­tics ac­cord­ing to the play­ers be­cause you can be caught on the break and pun­ished; in in­ter­na­tional foot­ball you also have op­po­nents who are clever.”

Crit­i­cally, though, he be­lieves it is about creat­ing the con­di­tions to at­tack, then cap­i­tal­is­ing on them swiftly.

“The mo­ment you win the ball,” he told Dan­ish mag­a­zine Euro­man in an in­ter­view not long af­ter be­ing ap­pointed to his cur­rent job, “our op­po­nents are out of bal­ance, and we must at­tack be­fore the de­fence is ready. We have to get on the horse and to the goal as quickly as pos­si­ble.”

This, he says, is how you win over sup­port­ers. “In Ro­man times we killed peo­ple for en­ter­tain­ment,” he said at the time. “This is bet­ter.”

He is said to watch three or four hours of foot­ball every day, much of it Cham­pi­ons League, in a bid to see how the best coaches and their teams are play­ing “modern foot­ball”. He then ap­plies what he can to his own sides, al­though he ad­mits much comes down to the play­ers you have to work with.

Mixed bunch

In Den­mark’s case it is a slightly mixed bunch, and much of his fo­cus since tak­ing over a lit­tle un­der two years ago has been on get­ting the best out of the pick of them Chris­tian Erik­sen. The Tot­ten­ham mid­fielder was pre­vi­ously crit­i­cised for his per­for­mances in the na­tional team, but his form for Den­mark has been trans­formed un­der Hareide.

“He’s a world class player,” says Hareide, “and if you have a world class player in your side you have to give him the free­dom and space to work and use his skills.

“When I came in I spent a lot of time watch­ing him play­ing at Tot­ten­ham, and I tried to get him into more or less the same role as he has there be­cause that is im­por­tant, that is where he has his daily work.

“He has a fan­tas­tic at­ti­tude, he re­ally wants to be at his best for Den­mark, and I think the way we play has brought Chris­tian into a good po­si­tion.

“You have to get in­volved with your best play­ers,” he con­tin­ues af­ter be­ing asked about the fact that he re­port­edly toured Europe to speak with them when he ini­tially suc­ceeded Morten Olsen, and spent two hours talk­ing things through with Erik­sen at a Lon­don ho­tel. “You have to get close, to play up to their strengths, and to do that you have to talk to them.

“Be­fore the Poland game [which Den­mark won 4-0] we spent a lot of time talk­ing to our most vi­tal play­ers, peo­ple with ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge of the game. If you bring it to them, they will take the re­spon­si­bil­ity when they go out there on a field. They all showed that against Poland.”

Top spot was al­ready out of reach be­cause of a poor start to the cam­paign but that night in Copen­hagen showed just how far the team had pro­gressed in un­der a year.

“We had two mis­er­able games in Oc­to­ber 2016,” Hareide re­calls. “Scored two goals in Poland but con­ceded three, all mis­takes, and then bom­barded Mon­tene­gro in Parken but couldn’t get the goal, and they got an easy one. That’s foot­ball, some­times you have to ac­cept it.

“At that stage the team was new and they got a lit­tle ner­vous at times, but I think we grew stronger and changed the whole at­ti­tude.”

Turn­ing point

He points to a friendly this June with Ger­many – in which his side al­lowed a nar­row lead to slip late on – as a turn­ing point.

“We drew af­ter lead­ing 1-0 up un­til added time, but I think the team got stronger men­tally. In in­ter­na­tional foot­ball you have to have that, and it comes from be­ing to­gether and play­ing big games.

“Ire­land have been to­gether for longer, and have the ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing at Euro2016, so maybe they are the more rounded team right now, but I think that we have that now in our team too.”

There is clearly re­spect on his part for the work his friend Martin O’Neill has done with Ire­land, and the jour­ney by the two men to get to this point has some strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties.

They signed for Manch­ester City on the same day in 1981, and both moved on to Nor­wich, where, Hareide re­calls, he came to ad­mire the way in which O’Neill, who was made cap­tain at the club, talked to the play­ers and con­veyed the win­ning men­tal­ity he had ac­quired un­der Brian Clough at Not­ting­ham For­est.

Each has taken breaks from the game when their fam­ily needed them, then re­turned, ul­ti­mately to in­ter­na­tional foot­ball. Per­haps they still have a point to prove, and with Hareide it would seem to be mainly to him­self.

“Yeah, of course it is the big­gest tour­na­ment in the world, so that speaks for it­self. I have won ti­tles and cups and qual­i­fied for Cham­pi­ons Leagues with a Swedish side, but I lost a play-off with Nor­way against the Czech Repub­lic in 2005. This time I want to go to the World Cup.”

Some teams can de­fend and take one or two chances, but that’s a pa­tience game, and I have no pa­tience. I want to go for­ward.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LARS RONBOG/ FRONTZONESPORT VIA GETTY IMAGES

Age Hareide and Chris­tian Erik­sen. The man­ager has got the best out of the Tot­ten­ham player since tak­ing over aas man­ager.

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