Belfast Telegraph

Hothead Antonio Conte is a roll of the dice for Chelsea

Antonio Conte has not always enjoyed the idea of Chelsea emerging victorious.

When his Juventus side had just beaten Midtjylland in the Champions League three and a half years ago, he arrived in the press room to find a journalist celebrating the 94th-minute winner Victor Moses had just scored against Shakhtar Donetsk, in the same group, for the club he will soon manage, taking over from interim Guus Hiddink after Italy's Euro 2016 campaign.

"Who is that who has just celebrated?" he demanded. "This is the game I am talking about."

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Juve went on to win the group and reach the quarter-final while Chelsea, in the throes of a managerial crisis as usual, were relegated to the Europa League, which they won under Rafael Benitez.

The episode provides a pointer to what Conte expects from journalists. They are a part of the team, as he sees it, and despite a modicum of jokes there will be something of the sergeant major about him. The press conferences often start at 9am - Arsene Wenger style - except that "the sergeant" always arrives on time.

The question for those of a Chelsea disposition is whether players are ready for his volatile and sometimes temperamental ways.

England has been a graveyard of those from Italy who lay down the law and become detested for it. It was impossible to find so much as a gentle quote of gratitude from the ranks of Manchester City's squad for Roberto Mancini when the club's owners got shot in 2013.

The Spartan environment Fabio Capello created in the England set-up was even more authoritarian and made it a joyless place where factions took hold at the 2014 World Cup. On the scale of toughness, Conte sits behind Capello but ahead of Mancini, says Federico Farcomeni, UK Correspondent for Italian sports daily Tuttosport.

The Italians who prosper discover the value of flexibility, equanimity and adaptability in English conditions. Claudio Ranieri is clubbable in England, though a completely different person in Italy - very serious, often angry - while only Carlo Ancelotti is more or less the same person wherever he goes.

With Conte, there are often fireworks. He abruptly resigned after one year from Atalanta after a row with a player. His stays at Arezzo, Bari and Siena were very short, too.

It was at Siena that midfielder Filippo Carobbio asked for permission to leave the training set-up in order to spend time with his wife who was about to give birth. Conte refused because a game was imminent.

Of course, a faint heart never clinched the Premier League. Jose Mourinho has certainly not been in possession of one and Farcomeni observes that Conte, like his predecessor, can engender supreme devotion from a group of players - at Juventus, Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonussi and Arturo Vidal - who will deliver his message on the pitch.

His achievements as player speak for themselves, though with Conte's grasp of English still very basic, the continued presence of John Terry would be no bad thing.

Chelsea will look for echoes of how Conte made such an impact on Juventus on arriving in 2011 for a three-year stay. There had been consecutive seventh-place finishes beforehand but Conte immediately rehabilitated the Old Lady, who lost only the Coppa Italia final all season.

"He needed only one speech, with many simple words, to conquer both me and Juventus," Andrea Pirlo later observed. "He had fire running through his veins and he moved like a viper."

Conte found it harder to maintain the same standard when juggling Europe. In his second - and last - Champions League campaign, Juventus managed a tally of only six points from six games in the group stage and dropped into the Europa League.

He left on the second day of pre-season training for the next campaign, citing fatigue and financial constraints.

His successor, Massimo Allegri, seemed to manage well enough. He secured a domestic double and took Juventus to the Champions League final, where they lost to Barcelona. The overhaul of the squad, for which Conte must take credit, continued after his departure, too.

Chelsea are confident that a match-fixing allegation hanging over Conte from his Siena season will not present a problem when the verdict is delivered in a few months.

They view their seventh permanent manager in 13 years as the one who will deliver some of the Mourinho stardust without the toxicity. They are happy to possess another superstar boss.

But the diminishing ranks of those left to choose from left them with few options. They are gambling, as much as they ever did.

Belfast Telegraph


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