May 19, 2017
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Why next season will be the acid test for Antonio Conte at Chelsea

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After a gruelling 38-game Premier League season, the table never lies. Chelsea’s coronation as champions of England will officially take place at Stamford Bridge against relegated Sunderland this Sunday. In truth, the destiny of the title was decided long ago. The Blues’ stunning run of form during the winter months kept their challengers, headed by Tottenham Hotspur, firmly at bay and ensured Antonio Conte celebrated success in his first term as Chelsea boss.

The tactical switch to a 3-4-3 formation was a masterstroke that transformed the Blues, whose early-season form had even engendered speculation that Conte’s job was under threat. How laughable that suggestion seems in hindsight. The Italian arrived on these shores as the newest addition to the phalanx of ‘super managers’ that pilot the Premier League’s elite clubs, but without the fanfare that accompanied the appointment of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Despite having no prior experience of English football, Conte has outshone all his contemporaries in spectacular fashion by leading Chelsea to their fifth Premier League crown.

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Conte came to prominence during the 2016 European Championship, where his passion and touchline histrionics as Italy head coach endeared him to football fans throughout Europe. Twelve months later, the 47-year-old has proved he has the substance to match his style. Under his leadership, Chelsea have claimed maximum points in 29 of 37 matches. They have scored more goals than any other team while boasting the second-best defensive record. In short, their flamboyance has been underpinned by a resoluteness which has made for an irresistible force.

Next season will be the acid test for Conte. While highly deserving of the accolades he has received, fortune has favoured him. Chelsea have avoided the serious injuries that have afflicted their competitors. Key players such as N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have been available to spearhead the London club’s challenge throughout the entire campaign. And, most importantly, the absence of European football has enabled the Italian to name a settled starting XI without fear of his players suffering from burnout. How will he juggle his resources when domestic and European matches are coming thick and fast?

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In less than one year, Conte has become a cult figure among the Stamford Bridge faithful. In many respects, he is reminiscent of a young Jose Mourinho; gregarious, charismatic and charming. The Portuguese elevated Chelsea to a new level during his first spell in charge of the club and Conte has the credentials to chart a similar course. But it will not be straightforward. His rivals will redouble their efforts this summer and his methods will no longer be an unknown quantity. The battle for supremacy will only intensify.

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