After Saturday’s convincing 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, Antonio Conte spent a good portion of his post-match press conference talking about the massive game coming up against Barcelona on Wednesday. As in most other competitions this season, Chelsea are not in an advantageous position after the 1-1 first leg draw at Stamford Bridge, but all hope is not yet lost. It will however take an even better performance than a fortnight ago to eliminate Barcelona.
To achieve this monumental effort, Conte will take a fairly unique approach in consulting his squad to find the “right solution”. That’s not to say that this planning process is otherwise always a one-way street — even a man who firmly believes in his own tactical ideas above all else and spends sleepless nights devising gameplans against his opponents will spend time to listen to the ideas and suggestions of his players — but Conte has a reputation for needing total control and that made this public admission a little bit startling.
“It won’t be easy, it won’t be easy, we must know this. At the same time we have to try to the right solution to play this game.
“And I think sometime the best way is to speak with the players to try to find together the right plan to face this game.”
It’s very easy to draw a connection between this response and Eden Hazard’s comments after the City game, in which he spoke openly about having to graft for the good of the team in a position that gave him little joy and much frustration.
But that doesn’t mean Conte is ready to cede control to Hazard’s carefree ideals. As much as this consultation may be aimed at appeasing Chelsea’s biggest star, Conte made it obvious that caution will not be thrown to the wind on Wednesday night.
For example, chances are, we won’t be rolling out a “true” striker in Barcelona once again, just like last time or just like against Manchester City. Giroud may have played well against Crystal Palace, but Barca ain’t Palace, to state the obvious.
“For sure the game against Barcelona we have to prepare the right way. It will be totally different against Barcelona compared to today.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, Conte also re-emphasized team balance and the need to contribute without the ball as well — just as he did after playing Manchester City. We have a player who’s in the form of his life doing just that in Man of the Match Willian; Conte’s certainly hoping that all others can take a bit of inspiration from him.
“Willian is playing in a fantastic way, but I want to underline not only with the ball, also without the ball, because he’s working very hard, he’s helping the team without the ball, and I think he’s showing great maturity in this point of his career.
“In my heart I hope to see him in this level, to continue this performance, because he’s playing very well with the ball and without the ball.
“And for us, as you know very well, it’s important for us to have a balance during the game because when we lose that balance anything can happen with our team.”
It’s evident that Conte’s idea of balance is only putting one player on the pitch who is essentially free of defensive duties. Eden must play, that’s a given. And his defensive efforts are lukewarm at best. A striker would therefore be a luxury that Conte apparently feels he cannot afford against a talented attacking team like Barca. And so he’s going to have to warm Eden up to the idea of playing up front again.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those discussions!
Of course, beyond the tactics and strategies, Chelsea won’t get anywhere without the three pillars of anything and everything Conte: hard work, great commitment, and paying great attention.
“We must pay great attention, we have to try to have the same focus, the same attention as the first leg against Barcelona because I think we play a really great game.
“It was almost a perfect game, before we did concede a goal at the last. It won’t be easy, it won’t be easy, we must know this.”
Conte blamed a lack of focus for Van Anholt’s 90th minute consolation goal on Saturday. Now he’s going to enlist the input of the players themselves to make sure that come Wednesday they’ll have the focus to take the tie from Barcelona.
The kind of focus we know it will take. The kind we’ve seen before.