Chelsea’s Italian head coach Antonio Conte (R) speaks with Chelsea’s Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard during the English Premier League football match. PHOTO GLYN KIRK / AFP
Antonio Conte is on the verge of winning the Premier League in his first season at Chelsea and the uncompromising Italian has challenged his players to now go in for the kill.
Buoyed by second-placed Tottenham’s 1-0 defeat West Ham on Friday, Conte’s side host Middlesbrough on Monday knowing they need six points from their last four games to be crowned champions.
A title race that looked set to go down to the wire now seems certain to be a lengthy coronation party for Chelsea, who can clinch the trophy with a victory at West Bromwich Albion next Friday, providing they defeat Middlesbrough first.
That would cap an incredible revival of Chelsea’s fortunes under Conte’s astute leadership.
When the former Italy and Juventus boss arrived at Stamford Bridge last July he faced the tricky task of uniting a squad split into feuding cliques following Jose Mourinho’s sacking the previous season.
Against that acrimonious backdrop it was something of a gamble by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to hire a manager with no experience of the Premier League.
At first Conte seemed unsure how he would tame a team of prickly and fragile egos and the alarm bells were ringing when Abramovich felt compelled to make a visit to Chelsea’s training ground following successive defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal in September.
Those chastening results have been heralded as the turning point in Chelsea’s season as Conte switched to his preferred three-man defensive system and the Blues immediately reeled off 13 consecutive league wins.
But, just as significantly, Conte persuaded his players to buy into his belief that the foundations for success are laid on the training pitch, where focus on tactical discipline, patterns of play and supreme physical fitness have all been rewarded.
Ensuring that powerful dressing room voices like John Terry, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas weren’t granted special treatment also won over players who felt undervalued during Mourinho’s turbulent reign.
– Winning mentality –
Conte this week gave a glimpse of the steely streak he has imposed on his players so impressively.
“I like to underline a concept, I don’t have to keep the players happy. We must win,” Conte said.
“You speak about ‘happy’. I speak about ‘to win’ and to work very hard.
“Players are not always happy to work very hard. But I think my target is to put in the mind of my players a winning mentality.
“It’s very difficult to keep 20 players happy. I want players ready to fight and to try to put themselves in the team, to try to win together.
“Then, if you are happy or unhappy, I don’t care.”
Having won Serie A five times with Juventus, Conte knows how to insulate his players from the pressures of the title battle and it would be a major surprise if they surrender their four-point lead over Tottenham.
The 47-year-old isn’t taking anything for granted however and urged his players to focus on beating Middlesbrough rather than looking ahead to a potential title celebration later in the week.
“For me it’s not the first time to win the title. I have a good experience to face this type of situation,” he said.
“But it won’t be easy until the end. My expectation for this game is we must play a great game against Middlesbrough.
“They are struggling to avoid relegation. We must be ready to fight, ready to find the right way to take three points.”
With only one win in their last 18 matches, second-bottom Middlesbrough must win on Monday and hope other results go their way to have any chance of a dramatic escape from relegation.
“We’ve not had much luck this season. If that comes our way over the next few days, then we’ll take it,” Middlesbrough manager Steve Agnew said.