These days professional football seems to be as much soap opera as it is sporting competition. The newspapers, hungry for clicks and newsstand sales, may be dishing it out, but there’s a large public gobbling it all up, and so the cycle continues. Among the lowlights this season were the verbal fisticuffs between Antonio Conte (a “clown” on the sidelines, said Mourinho) and Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho (a “little man”, said Conte.)
Well, looky here, who do we have meeting again in the FA Cup Final on May 19th? None other than our two press-conference pugilists. After Chelsea’s convincing 2-0 semifinal win over Southampton followed United’s 2-1 defeat of Tottenham yesterday, naturally the TV folks wanted to hear all about a potential round 7 in the post-match debrief. Conte wouldn’t play.
“For sure we are talking about two managers with strong characters and are winners. When your mind, heart and blood and will to win, for sure we want to try to win this trophy. In the same way United want to do this. I have great respect for their story, Mourinho’s story, I think they have the same respect.
“With Jose we have clarified the situation. There is not a problem between us. This final is a game between two great teams. Manchester United and Chelsea. For sure in my mind we played the final we arrived as favourites, this season not as favourite. Last season we lost despite being favourite in that moment.”
The other issue that’s been coming up a lot at press conferences lately, as Chelsea once again seem to be following a title-winning season with a finish outside of the top four, is what constitutes a successful season for Conte? Would winning the FA Cup exorcise the Premier League demons? What is good enough?
With his hold on the Chelsea job looking tenuous at best, non-existent at worst, it’s question the Chelsea boss isn’t much interested in answering.
“I continue to answer in the same way. I don’t understand what means a successful season. This is another situation, if I am happy or unhappy. I think that in this season we are working very hard, but as you know very well it is not simple to play in this league, this is the only league to fight with six teams to win the title, to fight for a place in the Champions League. It is not simple. It will be more difficult year by year in the future. You must know this. You have to prepare in a strong way.”
One thing the gaffer is more than happy to talk about is his team’s resurgence. Sunday marked the third win in a row for Chelsea. It’s the first time the Blues have managed that since since late December. In particular, the problems at centre forward now seem like a bad memory, with January transfer Olivier Giroud scoring his third in three matches (and Morata bagging one too.)
“I think for sure it has been a good signing for us. As you know very well I needed a player with this characteristic, strong physically and hold the ball up and make the number 10 with combinations.
“Morata is an important striker for us. I am pleased for both because in the last game we started with both players. I am pleased to see them, I have another option, a card in my hand.
“I started with Olivier because I knew he was playing with three centre-backs. Morata and Pedro’s impact was important, as was Bakayoko.”
And so now it’s on to Swansea in the league and possibly chasing down Tottenham and Liverpool. But as he did in the tunnel interview, Conte took a moment to sing the praises of the tens of thousands of Chelsea fans who filled the Chelsea end of Wembley Stadium, greatly outnumbering their Southampton brethren.
“I think this type of game, the most important thing is to reach your target, reach the final. It is the second in a row. It is important for the players and the club. I am delighted for our fans. This season they have showed a great passion and enthusiasm and pushed us in every moment.
One more win at Wembley then, please, Antonio.