Chelsea’s run to the FA Cup final has not only lifted the mood among supporters dismayed by the way the season has unfolded — it has renewed the faith that many had lost in Antonio Conte.
A catalogue of poor performances pockmarked by ill-discipline and questionable tactics had withered the fans’ love for an increasingly truculent Conte. It got to the point against West Ham recently the familiar “Antonio, Antonio” chant was left unsung for the first time since it was conceived 18 months ago. The failed defence of the Premier League title and timid exits to Arsenal in the Carabao Cup and Barcelona in the Champions League had disappointed, but losing a 28-year undefeated home record to Tottenham was unacceptable. Had Roman Abramovich decided to sack Conte at this juncture, there is every chance he would have been lauded by Blues fans for doing so.
That the notoriously impatient Abramovich chose to do nothing raised questions as to why. It would have cost the Russian the best part of £10 million in compensation to rid himself of the Italian — and it still could if it comes to that in the next month or so. Financial considerations have never been an issue before for the billionaire Chelsea owner when it comes to terminating contracts of managers abruptly so maybe his decision owed more to the fact the candidature of the managers linked with the hot seat failed to motivate him sufficiently to wield the ax.
As far as Blues supporters are concerned, Luis Enrique (ex-Barcelona), Maurizio Sarri (Napoli), Brendan Rodgers (Celtic) and Massimiliano Allegri (Juventus) are not viewed as an upgrade, while there has been little enthusiasm for other coaches including Leonardo Jardim (Monaco), Thomas Tuchel (ex-Dortmund) and former double-winning Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti.
The renaissance in support for Conte has come largely because the Italian has once again proved his worth as a shrewd tactician and this will not have been lost on Abramovich as he weighs his options up.
In the league game following the 1-1 draw with West Ham, Chelsea went 2-0 behind to Southampton at St. Mary’s. The writing was on the wall for the Blues boss but instead of giving up the ghost he made a double substitution, taking off Davide Zappacosta and Alvaro Morata and sending on Pedro and Olivier Giroud. A shift of formation from 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1 with Pedro, Willian and Eden Hazard buzzing behind Giroud flummoxed the Saints defence to the point of capitulation. Chelsea scored three goals and won the game.
In the next match away to Burnley, a team who have fashioned their unexpected success in the league this season on the back of mean defending, Conte deployed a 3-5-2 set-up fielding Giroud and Morata as twin strikers. It was manna from heaven for supporters who’d been praying to see this type of experiment. The Blues won a pulsating game 2-1.
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