“For sure, it would be my greatest achievement,” were the words uttered by Antonio Conte in his press conference last April before Southampton visited Stamford Bridge. At the time, Chelsea were sitting four points clear of in-form Tottenham, but were coming off the back of two losses in their previous four league games. They may have been leading the way, yet they had some way to go before Conte could celebrate a Premier League win in his first year.
Southampton were dealt with in convincing fashion before a trip to Goodison Park saw Chelsea handle their last big test with a champion’s mentality. Suddenly, the title was near and all that was missing was the inevitable Tottenham slip-up. “Spursy” isn’t listed in the Oxford English dictionary but utter it to a fellow Premier League fan and they’ll know what you’re talking about. Spurs went and “Spurs’d” up their title challenge on a cool summer’s night at the Olympic Stadium against arch-rivals West Ham. Slaven Bilić’s side have struggled all year long, most notably at home, but you wouldn’t have known that given the sheer determination they fought with to ensure their fans at least had a nemesis’ demise to celebrate this year. They won their cup final, and sent Tottenham’s title hopes to the same place as all those bubbles go, up in the air and far far away.
For Conte, the result meant just six points were needed from Chelsea’s final four games to capture the league. Three of those were picked up against relegated Middlesbrough last Monday. The title is now an inevitability. Winning streaks, reported bust-ups and a revolutionary system — storylines throughout the year for a team set to win their second title in three years. This campaign had it all for Conte, all in his first season. Who can argue with him when he claims this as his greatest triumph?
Taking Bari from Serie B to top-flight Italian football was impressive. Bringing Juventus back from the brink of constant mediocrity and turning them into three-time Serie A Champions was even better. Leading a below-par Italian national team into last year’s star-filled European Championships retained his status in world football as one of the more talented up and coming young managers. Italy had no right dominating their group as they did, beating both Belgium and Sweden before the B-side fell to an Ireland team desperate for a victory. In the last-16, Italy conquered reigning champions Spain, before bowing out in the cruel heartbreak of a penalty kick shoot out against World Cup-holders Germany. Before the tournament, Italy were looked upon merely as also-rans, just making up the numbers with their unrecognisably lacklustre squad. Under the leadership of Conte, that narrative was quickly changed.
Yet, Conte has never faced a challenge like Chelsea. And he’s never claimed success as great as the imminent Premiership title coming his way. Lest we forget, a year ago Chelsea were in turmoil. Jose Mourinho had departed for a second time in ten years, doubts were cast over the future of several players including Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas. Eden Hazard was a shadow of himself while Thibaut Courtois didn’t seem too bothered by his club’s struggles week in, week out. The Board turned to Guus Hiddink to help salvage the season, but the magic of his 2009 run was never repeated and Chelsea finished tenth and a long way from Europe. They had suffered home losses to Bournemouth and Southampton while being embarrassed twice by Manchester City. Conte was picked to be the saviour, to save this sorry bunch in his first foray outside of Italy.
People point to the riches of the club as a reason why Conte’s triumph was expected more than hoped for. But a box of spare Ferrari parts is only as good as the mechanic tasked with putting it all back together, and even qualified technicians may struggle to get it purring as originally intended. There may even be a few glitches at first but it’s the end result, and not the struggle before it that matters. Those glitches came in the shape of uncontested defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal in the early part of the campaign. The players got off the team bus on those days and supposedly came to play for 90 minutes, but they may as well have just stayed at home. They never competed with their top-four rivals. The parts were labeled Ferrari, but were they actually that in reality? Conte didn’t have much time to mess around. Expensive toys of demanding, impatient owners aren’t made for tinkering.
Conte’s now revolutionary switch to a 3-4-3 after that Arsenal game helped spearhead a 13-game winning streak which lasted from the very first day in October to the start of January. Costa was scoring goals for fun and was responsible for three 1-0 victories in that time. Hazard returned to the form he displayed during his 2015 PFA and FWA Player of the Year season, while the defence conceded just four goals. From a team that looked like it could barely challenge for the top-four, Chelsea were now rolling and looking like champions elect even at that early stage. Taking care of business consistently and steadily while the other contenders struggled to garner any bit of momentum, Chelsea seized a spot no-one had reserved for them.
All the talk in the summer had been about the Manchester clubs. They had spent countless millions and had brought in two managers who were viewed as the best in the world. It was blue vs. red, Pep Guardiola vs. José Mourinho. Pundits gushed over the arrivals of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović. Both teams had laid their title intentions bare with strong recruitment and expensive transfer windows. Pep and José renewing their fiery rivalry from Spain added even more intrigue to an already intriguing league. The media had predicted a fight between the two for the Premier League, with the rest of the clubs falling in line on bended knee. They were seen as the two biggest and most important arrivals in the summer. The introduction of Conte to England was practically an afterthought. No-one was bothered that a three-time league winner with one of Europe’s most storied and biggest clubs was now trying his hand at The Best League in the World™.
And yet, here we are nine months later. The least spoken about figure is now only one win away from confirming his place at the top of the most competitive league in the world. Mourinho & Guardiola had been heard from, talked about and their tactics analysed from ear-to-ear, mouth-to-mouth, tactics board-to-tactics board. Conte walked through the doors at Stamford Bridge and revolutionised English football. His 3-4-3 formation has been replicated by the majority of clubs while his passion on the touchline is breathing fresh life into a league that often takes itself far too seriously. Conte’s handling of Chelsea’s internal politics, of the media, and the dressing room as whole as well as individuals has not been without praise; his positive attitude and the equally positive atmosphere he’s fostered around the club has been a much needed change following last year’s disaster.
Chelsea aren’t there yet, but they’re as close as they could wish to be. Even if Tony Pulis plays the party-pooper role he was born for on Friday, there are two games remaining, versus Watford and Sunderland, both at the Bridge, which should see this Chelsea side pick up the remaining three points needed.
The Premier League title is awaiting Conte, in his first chance to claim one. Only eight managers before him have won the competition, while just four of them won it in their first year. It’s a select group, and one which the 47-year-old is about to join. Success has been a mainstay throughout Conte's career, but this will be his finest moment.