Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0: If this was Antonio Conte’s final game in charge of Chelsea, then he at least enjoyed the kind of swansong any manager would want.
Indeed, by the time the Italian came to speak to the media on Saturday night, he had lifted the FA Cup at Wembley, got one over his rival Jose Mourinho, and been soaked in so much champagne that he had to apologise for his appearance to the assembled press. It was a day Conte will savour and look back on fondly, regardless of what happens with his future in the next few days.
Saturday’s FA Cup final may not have made particularly enjoyable viewing for the neutral, but it was a performance that reminded everyone how Chelsea romped to the Premier League title only a year ago.
They were back to their usual self under Conte.
The defence was incredibly organised and unbreakable, with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and the back three in front of him keeping Manchester United at bay all afternoon.
Ahead of them, N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko acted as the perfect screen in midfield, while further forward Eden Hazard was given freedom to thrive.
When he plays like he did on Saturday, you can understand why the Belgian is waiting to see what players will join him at Chelsea next season before deciding his future, and it was fitting that he won and scored the winning penalty on 22 minutes for he was the game’s standout player.
However, while winning the FA Cup may have been enough to save Arsene Wenger’s job at Arsenal a year ago, it may not be sufficient for Conte.
The Italian has had to battle with speculation since last summer, when he signed an improved contract with Chelsea but the length of his deal was not extended past its original end in June 2019.
A defeat on the opening day to Burnley only added fuel to the fire and rumours have continued throughout the whole of this season.
Conte too has been linked with other jobs, with AC Milan, Italy, and Napoli all mentioned as potential suitors. However, Conte insisted Satuday he has never thought about leaving Chelsea and that he will honour the terms of his current contract.
“In my mind it was always very clear to respect my contract for this club,” he said. “I didn’t think, also only for one second, to leave this club at the end of this season.
“As you know very well, every season you have to speak with the club and also in the last season after we won the league, we spoke.
“But I decided to sign a new contract and then I decided to stay for this club and to work very hard for this.
“In the last press conference I said to you that, in this season with my staff, I have worked more than last season because when you face difficulties you must be prepared and you must be prepared to work very hard to overcome these difficulties.
“I must be honest, in this season, the mountain to climb was very high, very high. But despite this, we finished with lifting a trophy — an important trophy like the FA Cup.
“Last season, despite our win in the league, we weren’t able to do this.”
Conte’s departure from Chelsea would not be out of character for the club who, should they sack the Italian, will be looking for their 14th manager since 2004.
It is very much a boom-and-bust carousel of coaches at Stamford Bridge with success peaking and troughing on a yearly basis.
Luis Enrique is favourite to jump into the hot-seat and the former Barcelona manager’s style of football makes him an attractive proposition.
However, for Conte, the key to being successful is producing the kind of disciplined and organised performance his team did on Saturday.
“Today it was the only way to lift a trophy,” said Conte. “I can find the right way to win this trophy today for sure.
“I repeat, as I said before, I cannot change my personality. I cannot charge my idea of football. But now the real situation of this club is this — we have to play strong defensively to win a trophy or if we want to take a place in the Champions League.
“Maybe we missed the Champions League this season because we tried to play very, very open and in this moment you can’t do this, especially with a strong team because to concede three goals in seven games this season it means you don’t have stability. A great team does not concede three, four goals against Watford. Now we have this moment if you want to change. We can change our idea, but you must change many players.”
Courtois 7; Azpilicueta 7, Cahill 8, Rudiger 7; Moses 6, Kante 7, Bakayoko 7, Alonso 6; Fabregas 7, Giroud 7 (’89 Morata 5), Hazard 8 (’91 Willian 5).
Subs not used:
Caballero, Chalobah, Zappacosta, Barkley, Pedro.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-3-3):
De Gea 6; Valencia 6, Smalling 7, Jones 4 (’87 Mata 5), Young 6; Herrera 6, Matic 5, Pogba 6 ; Lingard 5 (’73 Martial 5), Rashford 5 (‘73 Lukaku 5), Sanchez 5.
Subs not used:
Romero, Bailly, Darmian, McTominay.
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