GOLDEN TOUCH

Conte’s tac­ti­cal coup de­liv­ers ti­tle for Chelsea

New Straits Times - - Sport -

LONDON

IT is rare when the piv­otal mo­ment in a ti­tle race oc­curs in Septem­ber — rarer still when it can be pin­pointed to the minute — but such has been Chelsea’s sea­son.

Af­ter draw­ing with Swansea City and los­ing to Liver­pool, Chelsea found them­selves 3-0 down at half-time at Arse­nal on Sept 24, the malaise that had plagued them the pre­vi­ous sea­son ap­par­ently re­fus­ing to lift.

But 10 min­utes into the se­cond half, new coach An­to­nio Conte switched to a 3-4-2-1 for­ma­tion and Chelsea did not look back, a 13-game win­ning run lay­ing the foun­da­tions for their stun­ning Pre­mier League ti­tle tri­umph.

“Ev­ery­thing changed at Arse­nal,” Eden Haz­ard, who has been re­born un­der Conte’s leadership, said ear­lier this sea­son.

“(It was) a turn­ing point. We were los­ing 3-0, we were beaten, but we got to­gether — coach­ing staff and play­ers — and de­ter­mined then things would im­prove.”

A team that had looked on their last legs were sud­denly re­ju­ve­nated and they laid waste to their ri­vals in the weeks and months lead­ing up to the turn of the year.

Manchester United, now man­aged by for­mer Chelsea man­ager Jose Mour­inho, were thrashed 40 at Stam­ford Bridge in Oc­to­ber and two weeks later there was a thrilling 5-0 evis­cer­a­tion of Ever­ton.

Chelsea beat Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur 2-1 and weath­ered a firsthalf bat­ter­ing to come away with a 3-1 win at Pep Guardi­ola’s Manchester City in early De­cem­ber af­ter one of the most clin­i­cal counter-punch­ing dis­plays in re­cent mem­ory.

Conte, who ar­rived af­ter over­see­ing Italy’s Euro 2016 cam­paign, is loath to at­tribute too much im­por­tance to his tac­ti­cal ad­just­ment at Arse­nal, but ad­mit­ted the de­feat has re­mained in his mind.

“It was a shock, for sure,” he said in Fe­bru­ary. “Usu­ally my teams are not used to con­ced­ing three goals in the first half, so it was a shock and a shock I tried to trans­fer to my play­ers. I don’t want this.

“We worked a lot to avoid this hap­pen­ing again in the fu­ture. But this game is al­ways in my mind, al­ways present.”

The changes en­gen­dered by that sorry af­ter­noon at the Emi­rates Sta­dium were pro­found.

Ail­ing right-back Branislav Ivanovic was bombed out of the team and would leave the club in Jan­uary, along with John Mikel Obi and Os­car.

Em­blem­atic cap­tain John Terry only missed the trip to Arse­nal through in­jury, but he has been un­able to get back into the team since then and his sto­ried 22year as­so­ci­a­tion with Chelsea will end when the sea­son fin­ishes.

Chelsea’s new-look back three is formed of Gary Cahill, con­verted full-back Ce­sar Azpilicueta and David Luiz, who has proved an un­ex­pect­edly re­as­sur­ing pres­ence since his re­turn from Paris Saint-Ger­main.

Vic­tor Moses, who barely fea­tured un­der Mour­inho, and Mar­cos Alonso, a £23 mil­lion (RM128 mil­lion) cap­ture from Fiorentina, have thrived in the wing-back roles.

N’Golo Kante, prised from out­go­ing cham­pi­ons Le­ices­ter City at a cost of £32 mil­lion, has be­come the team’s heart­beat along­side the el­e­gant Ne­manja Matic.

The be­witch­ing Haz­ard once again looks the player who in­spired Chelsea to the ti­tle in 2015 and Diego Costa has got his edge back, chip­ping in with 20 league goals.

The orches­tra has been con­ducted with fever­ish in­ten­sity by Conte, a manic touch­line pres­ence whose full-bod­ied ex­hor­ta­tions have de­lighted those Chelsea fans who sit be­side the dug-out at Stam­ford Bridge.

His im­pact at Chelsea is re­flected in the jeal­ous digs that have been cast his way by rival man­agers.

Mour­inho ac­cused him of overcel­e­brat­ing dur­ing United’s ca­pit­u­la­tion in Oc­to­ber and, along with Arse­nal man­ager Arsene Wenger, has branded Conte’s side “de­fen­sive.”

Mourino has also pointed to Chelsea’s ab­sence from Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion help­ing, so next sea­son’s re­turn to the Cham­pi­ons League will cer­tainly chal­lenge Conte’s work­ing meth­ods.

In the mean­time, he has a ti­tle to cel­e­brate and an FA Cup fi­nal to pre­pare for, against Arse­nal on May 27. AFP

REUTERS PIC

Chelsea’s Michy Bat­shuayi scores past West Bromwich Al­bion goal­keeper Ben Fos­ter at the Hawthorns on Fri­day.

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