Conte makes champion Chelsea a happy family again
WEST BROMWICH, England – Antonio Conte was fielding a question in his post-match news conference when David Luiz and Diego Costa appeared from out of nowhere, barged past a couple of reporters and dragged their manager out of his chair and out of the room.
"Guys, champions! Enough, enough!" Luiz roared.
Chelsea's Premier League title-winning celebrations at The Hawthorns were in full flow heading into the early hours of Saturday morning, and the players wanted Conte to be part of it.
Life at Chelsea, with its big-time players and trigger-happy owner Roman Abramovich, can resemble a soap opera at times but it has been one big happy family at Stamford Bridge this season.
It's all down to Conte.
The popular Italian was the first to get the "bumps" — the celebratory ritual so common in England these days where a person is thrown in the air and caught by his club colleagues — after Chelsea's 1-0 win at West Bromwich Albion on Friday evening that clinched the title.
Conte paced the field post-match, hugging people twice and even three times, and was right in the middle of a line of players as they sprinted toward Chelsea's fans and dived on the wet turf.
Back in the dressing room, Conte walked through the door after some TV interviews and was soaked by a huge bucket of water. Then, Costa was among the players dousing Conte in champagne and beer.
"I had to change my suit," Conte said, with a smile, "my suit is a disaster now."
Costa was the life and soul of the post-match party, another testament to Conte, who has got the striker happy and playing close to his best again this season. The Spain international reportedly was one of the players who fell out with Jose Mourinho last season, contributing to the negative atmosphere that engulfed the club as it finished, somewhat embarrassingly, in 10th place.
Similarly, winger Eden Hazard is working hard and playing with a smile on his face again, which couldn't be said last season when — as English soccer's reigning player of the year — he only scored his first goal in April and was dropped from the team for some matches. On Friday, with the score at 0-0 late in the first half, Hazard was the one chasing back as Leicester mounted a counterattack from a Chelsea corner to force a 2-on-1 situation near the area.
Conte also has managed club captain John Terry's gradual fading out from the first team with grace and class.
For a club that can be toxic and leaky, there have been few flashpoints this season in the first year under Conte.
"I thank them for their commitment and work rate," Conte said of his players. "They show me a great attitude to try to do something great this season."
Conte's passion and work ethic is clearly infectious. The players bought into his ideas, particularly when he changed formation to a 3-4-3 during a game against Arsenal in late September when Chelsea was 3-0 down by halftime and Conte "didn't see nothing of my work, my idea of football."
"When you arrive after a bad season, 10th place, it means there (are) a lot of problems, not only one," Conte said. "To find the right solution quickly wasn't easy. For this, I want to say thanks to my players; they trust in a new work, in a new philosophy, a new football, new analysis, the mistakes, the positive and negative situations."
Of course, winning regularly helps to foster a happy atmosphere. It will be harder for Conte next season, with Chelsea facing a tougher schedule owing to its return to the Champions League and being the target once again in the Premier League.
Diego Costa could leave for China, while John Terry's departure will deprive the club of so much experience and leadership.
But with the hard-working Conte at the helm, expect Chelsea to overcome the challenges.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80