Chelsea 3 Leicester City 0: Football, unlike figure skating, does not award marks for artistic impression, but the body language of its participants on and off the pitch does provide pointers about their fates.
For Chelsea on Saturday, it was all about Conte and Costa, the coach and star striker.
Antonio Conte’s demeanour in the dugout and technical area could not be more different to the placid persona he presents at his post-match press conference. During the 90 minutes of play, he is an all-action dynamo, kicking every ball and directing his players.
After a victory that took Chelsea to fifth, he admitted he was, in his native Italian, ‘molto tranquillo’ although one reporter pointed out that he did not look very tranquil on the touchline.
“This is because in England I know that 2-0 can become 2-3 in 15 minutes, so you can never relax.”
It was why he kept on Diego Costa to the final whistle, refusing the striker’s repeated requests to be substituted even after Victor Moses had given Chelsea an unassailable lead in the 80th minute.
It wasn’t clear why Costa, who had opened the scoring in the seventh minute thanks to Leicester’s Sunday league defending, was so desperate to depart the field of play. Going into the game with four yellow cards, there was always the risk that one more would mean the volatile Brazilian missing next week’s crunch game against Manchester United through suspension, a risk Conte was prepared to take. “I keep Costa until the end of every game because he is an important player and we need his passion.”
Costa clearly disagreed, more than once rolling his forearms in that gesture universally understood to mean ‘substitute me’ and then rolling his eyes to the skies in frustration, standing with hands on hips, shaking his head when others were replaced to allow youngsters Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chalobah valuable playing time. Costa also rubbed the back of his right thigh from time to time, suggesting his hamstring problems were not entirely cleared, though it did not appear to impede him from bullying Leicester’s once-imposing backline into submission.
Wes Morgan and Robert Huth were a fearsome partnership in central defence last season, strong and steetwise enough to keep even the best strikers at bay. Perhaps cowed by the crackdown on grappling, they are not the same players this season.
Chelsea’s opening goal was a shocking example. Nemanja Matic was allowed to flick on Eden Hazard’s corner too easily, and with Morgan immobile on the penalty spot, Costa was unmarked at the far post as he lashed the ball past Kasper Schmeichel. Hazard then took advantage of tragi-comical confusion between three Leicester players to run the ball round Schmeichel and into the net in the 33rd minute. And Moses, reinvigorated as a wing-back, exchanged passes with Chalobah before running on unchallenged for the third goal. Chelsea also hit the woodwork twice and forced a string of last-minute stops and blocks to prevent more damage, while Leicester did not produce a single effort on target for the first time this season.
Claudio Ranieri admitted he rested Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani in preparation for their Champions League tie with FC Copenhagen tomorrow and spoke about the difficulties of managing the club’s debut in the competition.
“The first time a team go to play in Champions League, the mentality is totally different,” he said. “We are not used to having the mentality of Premier League one day and then Champions League the next.” Can he change that? “I don’t know. It’s not pizza, it’s not beer. You have to get used to playing in it and be competitive in both the Champions League and Premier League.”
His players certainly need to recover the form and team spirit that made them champions. At this stage of last season, Leicester had won five, drawn three and lost only one of their opening eight Premier League games. So far they have won only two and lost four of the first eight, and even the little things that went in their favour last year are not coming off.
Frustration was evident in the players’ body language as they remonstrated with each other after misplaced passes or basic errors. The togetherness of last season looks a distant memory.
“It’s very strange. Last season we were so solid, so strong, so concentrated, very, very hungry and now we have to change our mind,” added the manager.
“Last season we were very connected with each other, this season not so well. This is the problem. The senior players, all players, have to react and bring the new players in. The experienced players are very important because in the bad moments they have to react and stay together.”
Danny Drinkwater never stopped leading by example but his frustration was obvious, as it was with the out-of-sorts Jamie Vardy, snapping at team-mates. “That’s true. Frustration, everything, the body language is not good. Last season I didn’t see this body language. We have to react. I want positive men. We have to work hard.”
Leicester are already at the wrong end of the table, and Ranieri is realistic enough to know that defending their title or tilting at the Champions League is near impossible.
“Yes of course, last season we were out of this world, and now we come back into the world and we have to react.
‘The Champions League is not winnable, no. What happened last season is something not possible, it’s crazy. Now we are normal. We are the normal Leicester, and we have to fight.”
Courtois 6; Azpilicueta 6, Cahill 7, Luiz 6; Moses 7 (Aina 81), Matic, 7, Kante 8, Alonso 7; Pedro 7 (Chalobah 68), Costa 6, Hazard 7 (Loftus-Cheek 81).
Schmeichel 7; Hernandez 5, Morgan 4, Huth 5, Fuchs 5; Albrighton 6 (King 74), Amartey 5, Drinkwater 7, Schlupp 6 (Mahrez 67); Musa 4 (Slimani 67), Vardy 5
Man of the Match:
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