If there was one word Antonio Conte used most in his first Chelsea press conference it was ‘passion’; and that is significant after a year in which so many of his squad were accused of failing to perform for Jose Mourinho.
The Special One was sacked and his team finished an unforgivable and unimaginable 10th in the Premier League.
And Mourinho’s antics last year — not least the never-ending controversy over his boorish treatment of physio Eva Carneiro — played a major part in the downfall of a team which won the title in 2015 and then collapsed in spectacular style 12 months later.
But Conte knows he has serious work to do with a set of players who are capable of such diverse performances — based primarily on the amount of effort they are willing to put in.
Anyone who watched Conte’s behaviour on the touchline at Euro 2016, a tournament in which he guided Italy to the quarter-finals, could be in no doubt about the passion Chelsea fans can expect from their new manager.
And it is the primary quality he is searching for in the opening months of a new season in which the Blues will be without European football for the first time in 14 seasons since the arrival of owner Roman Abramovich.
“I want to transfer my passion to my players and to our fans because I suffer during the game and I want my players to see this and the fans to see this,” the Italian said as he was officially unveiled at Stamford Bridge.
“We need to show we want to win, that we want to fight to win — at all times. I think this is the most important thing now, more important than results.
“We have good players but it’s important for all to come back with the right enthusiasm. I understand that after a bad season there is a bit of sadness in the players, in the club, in all the people who work for this club and also in the fans. But I can assure you we have a great passion and will to change the situation.”
Conte’s words should be a warning to Chelsea’s current big-name players, not least the likes of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard who have been persuaded to stay at Stamford Bridge but whose performances under Mourinho came under particular scrutiny after their levels dipped so dramatically in the build-up to his departure — before rising somewhat under caretaker manager Guus Hiddink.
At this stage the Italian is unwilling to issue public warnings, not after only two training sessions at Cobham, but he made it clear in media briefings following his press conference at Stamford Bridge that he is looking to reinforce a squad that failed so badly last year — and which so far has only been boosted by the arrival of one player, Belgium striker Michy Batshuayi.
Conte added: “Some people may think Chelsea is not a favourite for the title and that could be right after last season. Also if you see we bought only Batshuayi so far. But we are ready. We are talking with the club together because we know this club, this team, needs to reinforce. I’m sure in the next days we can reach our target to reinforce the team with two or three players and to close the gap to the other teams.
“It’s not easy because there are a lot of big teams with a lot of money to reinvest in the market. But I’m sure that all together we can build something positive to reach our target.”
How quickly Conte can work remains to be seen.
At Juventus, he took his team to three consecutive titles but the job at Stamford Bridge looks bigger given how far Chelsea finished from the top four and how rivals such as Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City have responded in the meantime.
“After a bad season — and 10th position is very bad — it’s not easy to come back,” admitted Conte.
“But we can learn a lot from last season, me and the players. For instance, that’s it’s important always to work and fight if you want to win the title. It’s very strange that only 24 months ago Chelsea won the title and then after only one year they are out of Europa League, out of the Champions League.
“I think the club don’t like this — but also the players don’t like this.
“Leicester can give us a great lesson because you can have the best talent, the best champions, but you must also have a good spirit and good organisation. If you have all you can win and reach your targets.
“The players know last season was very, very bad — not bad but very, very bad — and for this reason every single one knows this and wants to change the story.”
Conte, of course, knows ultimately he needs to change the story too; a string of managers, even successful ones such as fellow Italians Carlo Ancelotti (who won the Double at Stamford Bridge before being sacked) and Roberto Di Matteo (who was removed despite winning the Champions League) have found that to their cost. But for now his focus is just on bringing back the desire that made Chelsea great in the past.
“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “I don’t need to think ‘If I win I stay, if I don’t win, I don’t stay’. I am not afraid if the club sacks me. I just need to bring my football, my passion, my work — and to transfer that passion to my players and the fans.”
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