Cautious Conte calls for calm as Chelsea target title
He is on the verge of one of his greatest achievements. But Antonio Conte spent the prelude to Chelsea's match against West Bromwich Albion on Friday contending with rumours from his Italian homeland. He is wanted at Inter Milan and the Chinese owners are willing to pay mouthwatering wages to obtain their man.
Was it fake news? A last ditch ploy by Tottenham Hotspur's faithful to derail the Chelsea train?
Not at all. Conte is coveted because of his stunning first season in the English Premier League.
The 47-year-old took over at Stamford Bridge in July 2016 shortly after leading Italy to the last eight at the European championships in France.
The post was considered a poisoned chalice.
Jose Mourinho had taken the side to the 2015 title but the dressing room revolted during the following season as they slumped towards the relegation zone. Mourinho - rather than the rebellious players - was sacked in December 2015 less than six months after steering the side to triumph.
Yet Conte's arrival at a strife torn Stamford Bridge was one of the side stories at the outset of the 2016/2017 English Premier League season. The narrative was the impending battle between the old sparring partners Mourinho and Pep Guardiola at Manchester United and Manchester City respectively.
They had clashed repeatedly while Mourinho was at the helm of Real Madrid and Guardiola was the darling of world football with his all conquering Barcelona side.
Would Mourinho after his Chelsea chastening be calmed? Would Guardiola continue his acquisition of honours after three trophy laden seasons at Bayern Munich? Would Arsenal fulfil ltheir promise? Would Jurgen Klopp bring Liverpool back to the fore? Those were the questions. It would have been clairvoyance bordering on sorcery to have foreseen 12 May 2017 and Conte's Chelsea within three points of the title.
But that is where the west Londoners are as they broach the 36th game of the campaign.
And they have West Ham to thank for this moment. On 5 May, West Ham hosted Tottenham Hotspur. The Hammers' poor form had dragged them back in the relegation scuffle. Spurs travelled to east London with the momentum of nine straight Premier League wins behind them. They had whittled Chelsea's lead down from 10 to four points.
West Ham won the derby 1-0 to extinguish any fears of a drop into the second tier. Chelsea exploited the advantage with a 3-0 victory over Middlesborough on 8 May to extend their lead to seven points.
That really should have been that. But on Tuesday, Inter Milan sacked their coach Stefano Pioli and since then have made it clear that Conte is the man they crave to restore their former glories. The carrot of a 12 million euro a year pay cheque has been brandished and millions to spend in the transfer windows in order to attract the best talent to the San Siro.
"I have two years remaining in my contract with Chelsea," Conte said. "It's logical when you start the work in a new club the will is to continue to work, to try to improve your work in many years. For sure, this is my will.
"In this moment for me or for my players, the most important thing is to be focused on the moment. Now the most important thing is to reach our target. The most important thing is to write the history of the club. It's important now: don't lose the concentration, be focused."
Chelsea's charge to the title was fired by a streak in which they won 13 consecutive games. It took them from eighth with 10 points after six games on 24 September to top on 4 January with 49 points from 18 games and a five point lead over second placed Liverpool. They have been at the summit since a 1-0 win at Middlesborough on 20 November.
"My players are totally focused on the moment. We mustn't forget that we must take three points to reach the target of the title," said Conte.
Even if West Brom deny Chelsea victory on Friday, the setback is likely to only delay the inevitable. Tottenham will have to win all their games and hope Chelsea lose at home to mid table Watford on 15 May and relegated Sunderland on 21 May.
"It's not important where you win, it's important to win," said Conte. "Then you will have the time to celebrate the win where you want. The game at West Brom game is the most important game for us. It's a final.
"I like to repeat: this is a good season. We want it to become a great season."
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe