Same old Chelsea, with a slight Conte twist

Date published: Monday 15th August 2016 10:36

It was the perfect conclusion to a promising first chapter. Antonio Conte would have preferred a more comfortable Premier League debut, but a victory on his bow as Chelsea manager was his first remit. Objective one: Complete.

Even with the 90th minute approaching, Chelsea might have been content. Regretful, but content nevertheless. They had controlled most of the game against West Ham, but there are worse results than a draw against a side who beat Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City away last season.

They will also have recognised the virtue of a slightly more low-key opener to a season. It was just over a year ago in last season’s first fixture that their campaign was engulfed in a controversy from which it would not recover, players placed into a stupor from which they would not awaken. After the storybook season of their title win came the failed attempt at a sequel. The 2-2 draw with Swansea marked the start of a campaign remembered more for infighting and arguments with club doctors than trophies and success. The same actors had been cast, but their hunger and desire was lost.

As it happened, Diego Costa’s wonderful late strike handed the hosts a 2-1 victory. It continued the theme of an evening which carried a rather familiar feeling. The Spaniard was among the goals once more; Stamford Bridge was rocking again; Eden Hazard was by far the best player on the pitch; the defence was stoic, but prone to at least one error. It was as if last season had never even happened. Even the manager was animated, controversial and a born winner. Conte’s performance was built in his predecessor’s image but with some crucial Italian.

It feels far longer than 12 months ago that Chelsea began that doomed season with an undeserved home draw. Perhaps because by Christmas their hopes – in the league at the very least – had already crumbled. For five months, the Blues cruised through until May, stumbling, slipping, sleepwalking. All it took was a man nicknamed The Godfather to lurch them from their slumber.

This was no perfect Monday evening performance. For large swathes of the game Costa struggled as the lone striker, while Hazard did well not to buckle under the weight of being the only player capable of consistently creating chances. N’Golo Kante started nervously but soon became his imperious self, while an established defence failed to deal with a simple set piece.

But Conte will have seen enough in this outing to convince him that Chelsea are contenders in this most competitive of Premier League seasons. Hazard was scintillating nevertheless. No player attempted more shots than the Belgian (three), no player made more passes in the opposition half (45), and only Cesar Azpilicueta (83) enjoyed more touches (81). His first league goal of last season came in Chelsea’s 35th game; an emphatic penalty ensured the wait would be measured in minutes this time. His performance made Slaven Bilic’s decision to persist with Michail Antonio at right-back even more inexplicable.

Conte has clearly earmarked Hazard as his lynchpin, the cherry atop his cake, but the Belgian was provided with a more than worthy supporting act. Oscar and Willian were smooth operators behind the striker, as the Brazilians exchanged some delightfully intricate passes and incisive runs in their build-up play. It speaks volumes that Mourinho often struggled to get the best out of Oscar. Here, he made more tackles (six) than any other player, and was bright in attack.

Just behind them, Kante and a reinvigorated Nemanja Matic dominated the midfield battle. The latter encapsulated the return of a battling spirit and togetherness which was absent for months. Conte, who relished the contest for Juventus and Italy during his playing career, will have cut a pleased figure somewhere behind his spate of touchline tantrums. Cesc Fabregas faces a fight to regain his place.

Question marks remain over the defence, which started a 53rd league game together. This was the third consecutive season in which Chelsea lined up with Branislav Ivanovic at right-back, John Terry and Gary Cahill central and Cesar Azpilicueta at left-back in their first game. There is no wonder Conte is reportedly growing frustrated at a lack of defensive transfers; only one side – West Brom – have signed fewer players this summer. Considering their youngest defender is 26, and the rest are all over 30, fresh faces are needed. The links to Kalidou Koulibaly is understandable; the manager will know he needs signings and fast.

The early signs are that something positive is growing at Stamford Bridge. This time last year, it played host to what became the beginning of a controversial end, tainted by infighting and finger-pointing. Twelve months later, there was a promising start to the next chapter. They could ask for few better authors than Conte.


Matt Stead

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