Written by : Gabriel Latinwo.
Despite the sour taste left by the loss to Arsenal in the FA Cup final, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have by far exceeded expectations this season. Billed as a season of super managers, the Italian master tactician has outclassed, out thought and even at times outfought his peers on the touchline. (‘’The individual’’ can attest to that during the FA Cup quarter finals).
Champions league qualification was the target set by Roman Abramovich for the season, but any rational football fan who saw the way Italy performed during the Euro’s and followed Conte’s first season back at Juventus knew ‘’Martello’’ (The hammer as Conte is fondly called by his Juventus squad) could perform wonders with the underachieving squad he overtook.
The road to title success was far from straightforward, even before the season began, Chelsea fans all over the world and football observers knew the squad required major surgery after their abysmal title defence. However, the club never really acquired the players they wanted.
The failed Nainggolan pursuit could be seen in hindsight as a blessing in disguise as it led Chelsea to arguably their player of the season in Ngolo Kante. Napoli and AC Milan playing hardball over Kalidou Koulibaly and Alessio Romagnoli respectively meant Chelsea going back in for David Luiz. The Brazilian defender, who was constantly ridiculed by the media during his first stint in English football was unsurprisingly slaughtered even before he kicked a ball in his second Chelsea career. ‘’ Footballing Experts’’ such as Graeme Souness and Gary Neville claimed he was a panic purchase and they never saw him a Conte type defender. Further acquisitions such as Michy Batshuayi and Marcos Alonso who was tagged a Sunderland reject never really excited the fans , but to Conte , they were the required pieces to the puzzle he was about to complete.
As said earlier, achieving the unthinkable in winning the premier league trophy was predicted by only a selected few (myself included).
However as the season progressed, particular matches defined Chelsea’s unlikely hunt for the title. Five select games will be examined below (ranking from 1. i.e. Most important)
- Arsenal vs Chelsea – 24th September 2016
Following the EFL cup third round win over defending league champions Leicester City, Chelsea faced Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. Despite losing the preceding premier league match to Liverpool in the premier league, fans eagerly anticipated a change in fortunes. The starting XI Conte would eventually go with was one which included fan favourite Cesc Fabregas, who single-handedly dragged Chelsea over the line in the previous cup game.
However, what transpired on the pitch was a different story entirely. Losing two nil within fifteen minutes, the ghosts of the previous season had returned to haunt the Chelsea team. From defence to midfield to the final third, the team was lethargic, lacklustre and simply put –shocking- . This was evident in Arsenal’s third goal scored by Mesut Ozil, when referee Michael Oliver surprisingly outran N’Golo Kante to get to the edge of the Chelsea box.
Within 40 mins, the game was lost. Antonio Conte watched on like a defeated man who was simply short of ideas. However, in a move to prevent further embarrassment, Cesc Fabregas was replaced by new signing Marcos Alonso who signalled to the troops on the pitch to move to a back three. A move which effectively transformed Chelsea and English football for the 16/17 season.
Stand out performer: Antonio Conte for simply changing the system.
- Hull city vs Chelsea – 1st October 2016.
Following the annihilation Chelsea suffered at the Emirates stadium, the following week saw Roman Abramovich pay regular visits to the training facility at Cobham. Certain bookmakers suspended bets on Antonio Conte no longer being the Chelsea boss, as rumours of the owner not being satisfied with performances in the so called ‘’big games’’ filled back pages.
Nonetheless, the next challenge in store was at Hull City’s KCOM stadium. Having said in his post-match presser vs Arsenal that the Chelsea squad was only a good team on paper and not on the pitch, Antonio Conte made distinct changes to the starting XI. In came perennial loanee Victor Moses and new signing Marcos Alonso in a 3-4-3 formation, which saw the named players positioned at right wing back and left wing back respectively.
The move to this new system trialled at the Emirates was put to the test over a period of 90 minutes, it wasn’t fashionable nor exciting but it got the job done with Chelsea winning by two goals to nil, thanks to quite similar goals from Willian and Diego Costa.
This match could be seen in retrospection as the catalyst which effectively transformed the clubs fortunes as the team went on a record breaking winning run spanning thirteen games.
Stand out performer: Victor Moses.
The Nigerian international starting his first league match for the blues since 2013 performed remarkably in his new role. Offering width which helped stretch the Hull backline, he also made the most crosses from open play (8) as well as being involved in more duels than any other Chelsea player (17).
- Manchester City vs Chelsea – 3rd December 2016
Following the win at Hull City, the Chelsea squad grew into the new system introduced by manager Antonio Conte. What followed, were six convincing wins over teams which included perennial bottlers Tottenham, Manchester United and the most impressive , a five nil demolition of Everton on a bitterly cold night at Stamford Bridge. A match described by BBC commentator John Motson as the best 90 minute performance he had ever seen in the Premier League.
On the back of the 2-1 win over Tottenham, Chelsea’s next test was a trip to Manchester to face Pep Guardiola’s City. The match falling on the same day as the El Classico in Spain, was dubbed by rival fans in England as the ‘’El Cashico’’- inferring to the two teams being backed by wealthy owners. With Nemanja Matic injured, Cesc Fabregas was restored to the Chelsea line up following a long spell on the sidelines. However, Chelsea were absolutely battered in the opening stages of the encounter, with former player and now city star Kevin De Bruyne pulling the strings with David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan in the middle of the park.
Luckily for Chelsea, City squandered numerous chances and were wasteful in front of goal. Even though It could’ve been a stalemate come half time, Gary Cahill’s failed attempt to clear his lines led to him scoring an unfortunate own goal. Nonetheless, what transpired in the second half was a masterclass from Chelsea in counter attacking football. Cesc Fabgregas’ defence splitting long range pass to Diego Costa led to the first Chelsea goal, followed by a Willian goal created by previous goal scorer Costa. The game was all but put to bed by Eden Hazard after scoring the third, which was best put by Peter Drury’s iconic ‘’EIGHT IN A ROW’’ commentary. This was more than a win, Chelsea’s title winning credentials were strengthened at the Etihad.
Stand out performer: Diego Costa.
Arguably his best performance in a Chelsea shirt, he put on a masterclass in the second half. Scoring one and creating another, this was classic Diego at his very best.
- Stoke City vs Chelsea – 18th March 2017.
The cliché regarding a team’s ability to do it on a cold day at Stoke has ultimately become the litmus test for any title challenging squad in the English Premier League. The teams’ reputation carved by former manager Tony Pulis’ has been kept alive despite managerial and squad changes. Inevitably, as Chelsea were closing in on another league title, this away trip was earmarked by pundits as well as rival managers / fans as where Antonio Conte’s all conquering team could falter.
With star man Eden Hazard out with a muscle problem, this was always going to be a tricky test for Conte’s men. Furthermore, striker Diego Costa’s form had dropped remarkably as it was reported that his head had been turned as he was subject to a big money offer from the Chinese Super League. This was evident as the game began as he was more interested in picking fights with Stoke defenders than concentrating on the task at hand. On the other hand, it was also his pass that picked out Left Wing Back Marcos Alonso who eventually won a foul. The resulting Freekick was cleverly whipped in by Willian who managed to beat Lee Grant at his near post.
Everything was all going to plan till Captain Gary Cahill foolishly pushed Jonathan Walters in the 18 yard box as Courtois was ready to claim the ball in his area. Unsurprisingly, referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the penalty spot, the resulting spot kick was then smartly converted by the player fouled – Jonathan Walters-.
With the game reaching its dying stages, youth prospect Ruben Loftus Cheek was sent on by Antonio Conte to add more pace to the Chelsea attack and he repaid the managers trust by persistent pressing of the stoke backline which led to a Chelsea corner. The resulting corner kick was turned in by culprit Gary Cahill who immediately went from Zero to Hero, a testament of his incredible mental strength and ability to come up with crucial goals at key moments of games.
This match will be fondly remembered for Antonio Conte’s celebrations as he was captured by camera’s swinging from the dugout benches.
Stand out performer: Ruben Loftus Cheek.
With the highly rated youngster barely getting minutes in the premier league, to be sent into action whilst the team needed a goal vs Stoke City was a huge show of faith by Antonio Conte. He however repaid his manager during his brief cameo with his pressing, movement and by also winning the corner kick which eventually led to the Chelsea winner.
- Everton vs Chelsea – 30th April 2017.
With Tottenham putting a run of wins together and cutting Chelsea’s lead to four points, the trip to Goodison Park was always going to be tricky for Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. Marked as a potential bubble buster by rival fans, Chelsea were meant to falter against a resilient Everton side who had won their last eight home games.
Furthermore, with Romelu Lukaku hoping to prove his worth to his former employers and Conte’s men failing to keep a clean sheet for eleven games, we were in for a thriller in Liverpool. As faith would have it, Lukaku could have put Everton ahead within two minutes but a timely block from Chelsea Captain Gary Cahill prevented the Belgian from breaking the deadlock.
The opening exchanges at Goodison was a bit of a stalemate with Chelsea lacking fluidity and creativity going forward. In addition, Ronald Koeman had deployed Senegalese midfielder Idrissa Gueyye to man-mark Eden Hazard, a tactic successfully implemented by a certain individual in Manchester.
With the deadlock yet to be broken by the 65th minute and the match looking more likely to end as a draw, Chelsea needed something magical and Spaniard Pedro Rodriguez proved more than capable of producing this. A 25 yard stunner to the top right corner of the goal sent Chelsea ahead and further attempts by Koeman’s men to salvage anything from the match was put to rest by Gary Cahill following erroneous goalkeeping by Maarten Stekelenburg. The Blue’s superiority was further reinforced when substitutes Cesc Fabregas and Willian combined for Chelsea’s third. Antonio Conte’s men had passed their last real test in flying colours.
Stand out performer: Gary Cahill.
With Chelsea ‘fans’ constantly doubting his abilities and leadership qualities, Gary Cahill put in a solid Captain’s performance at Goodison Park. A timely block preventing Romelu Lukaku from scoring within two minutes and further helping to calm the nerves with a huge goal at the other end, Gary Cahill proved to be Chelsea’s unsung hero versus Everton. Finishing the game with 9 clearances, 5 aerial duels won, 2 shots and a goal, it was indeed an immense performance from the Chelsea Captain.
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