Frenzied Antonio Conte improvises to ensure Chelsea find a way to win

Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea celebrates victory with his players after the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on August 20, 2017 in London,...

The reaction at the final whistle told its own story.

Antonio Conte, fists pumping and that same frenzied look in his eye that marked the latter stages of their successful title pursuit last season, was at the heart of the throng of visiting players gathered in the corner of this arena to celebrate in front of a raucous away support. After a summer of painful politics and festering frustrations, this served emphatically as a lancing of the tension, and a reminder of the calibre of champions. Chelsea, defiant and still with time to add to their squad, are far from a spent force just yet.

Their prospects will feel rosier as the dust settles on this win. A derby of this ferocity, and staged in such grandiose surroundings, was always likely to have the juices flowing and those back at Cobham had sensed all week that, while the world obsessed over the messy divorce with Diego Costa and the hierarchy’s laboured manoeuvring in the transfer market, Conte believed the recovery from that comical capitulation to Burnley would begin at Tottenham’s expense. In truth, few on the outside had shared his optimism given how fragile everything had been made to feel by the intrigue behind the scenes. But the scrapper in Conte was always going to relish the daunting nature of this particular challenge.

It was not merely that this was an awkward collision with Chelsea’s most potent challengers of last season, and a side unbeaten at home in the league – albeit not in this arena – since May 2016. Chelsea had arrived wounded and with a makeshift feel, a team shorn of the suspended captain, Gary Cahill, and their spiky creator-in-chief, Cesc Fàbregas, as casualties of the previous weekend’s indiscipline. Absent, too, was the team’s attacking inspiration, Eden Hazard, whose rehabilitation from ankle surgery is close to completion. The revamped selection looked as if they might be there for the taking, with the manager forced to field a semi-fit Tiémoué Bakayoko from the start, and David Luiz thrust further up into midfield. As it is, a simple plan reliant upon pace on the counter and rugged defence ended up feeling inspired.

Conte referred to David Luiz’s performance as his side’s “point of reference”, so outstanding was he in underpinning Chelsea’s entire gameplan. It was he who snapped in on the dawdling Victor Wanyama as the Kenyan collected Hugo Lloris’s throw, the Brazilian poking the ball forward for Marcos Alonso to gather in space. That a left wing-back was eagerly sprinting forward again so deep in the game, swapping passes with Pedro before ramming in the winner under Lloris, rather summed up the visitors’ approach. This had been a rearguard effort for long periods, particularly once Alonso had thrust Conte’s team ahead with a viciously dispatched free-kick.

There were times when everything about Chelsea’s defending had appeared last-ditch, a blur of desperate blocks or interceptions, but no team seem to thrive so often in contests of this type. It is not merely borne of luck and, having come so close to prevailing, they were not going to let the result slip away courtesy of a sloppily conceded free‑kick and an own goal.

It was actually the type of match that might have been made for Costa, but he was still back in Brazil, training on his own in last season’s Adidas kit. Instead, it offered a stage for new faces to demonstrate they can squeeze eye‑catching results from unlikely scenarios. David Luiz did that in midfield and Bakayoko, though clearly lacking match sharpness and sapped of energy even while the opening exchanges were still erupting around the turf, offered enough to suggest he will fit right in. The way in which Mousa Dembélé, such a powerhouse of a midfielder in his own right, bounced off the Frenchman 13 seconds into Bakayoko’s debut boded well. Yet just as encouraging for Conte will have been Antonio Rüdiger’s hints at adjustment to the frenetic pace as the match dragged on, and Andreas Christensen’s composure in the maelstrom.

The latter was making his first Premier League start for the champions, deputising for David Luiz in the centre of the back three, but was not unnerved to have lost Dele Alli beyond the far post 15 minutes in. That error, failing to judge the flight of a looped pass, did not deter him. Even Harry Kane’s aggressive movement did not deflect him, the centre-back relieved to see the striker belt a shot on to a post towards the end of the first half before exerting greater control after the break. Two years in the Bundesliga with Borussia Mönchengladbach had demonstrated Christensen’s considerable potential. He has played Bayern Munich, and contested Champions League ties against Juventus, Manchester City and Barcelona. But this will still have felt like a baptism into the mayhem of the Premier League and, having weathered that storm of a first half, and guided by the excellent César Azpilicueta at his side, he grew impressively into the occasion.

Conte, too, will believe the Chelsea board can finally succeed in adding to his first-team options over the next fortnight, when interest in the likes of Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and possibly Antonio Candreva, comes to a head. All is not doom and gloom as the Burnley defeat had suggested. A win against bitter rivals can have a cathartic effect.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dominic Fifield at Wembley, for The Guardian on Monday 21st August 2017 09.00 Europe/London

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