Antonio Conte is an ambitious man. He steered Juventus to three Serie A titles in a row and picked up the Panchina d’Oro, for Serie A manager of the season, each time.
Given such a stellar history he would have been bitterly disappointed with Italy’s quarter-final exit at Euro 2016 despite the mediocre players at his disposal. He will want to make amends for such disappointment at Chelsea, and to do so he will need to inspire a group of players at the nadir of their club careers.
Prime among these is Eden Hazard. The PFA Player of the Year for 2014-15 was nothing short of abysmal last season scoring a paltry four goals during the entire campaign. Conte appears unfazed by such a sterile season though and, speaking to the media following his team’s first pre-season fixture, he clearly has big plans for the Belgian international.
“We know that when you have great players with great talent like Hazard in the team, the expectations are very high. Also, when the season before you have won the title and Hazard has been named the best player in the league. It’s important for us to recover Hazard in the best condition: technique, tactical, physical, overall and with the good mentality.” (H/T The Daily Mail)
Surprisingly, Conte was not hesitant to name check several players he believes the 25-year-old can emulate in the near future.
“I think that these players can still improve a lot with work. Because now we have players, fantastic players, who have great talent but in this moment the world doesn’t think they are the same level as Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo or Paul Pogba. But I think that in our squad there are players who, with work, can improve a lot and reach this level.”
The numbers, for last season in particular, perfectly encapsulate the scale of the task Hazard faces to scale these heights. As previously mentioned, he netted just four goals last season. Ronaldo scored 35. Suarez? 40.
Conte, however, was eager to point out that he overcame such odds at the helm of Juventus and so sees no reason he can’t do so at Stamford Bridge:
“My first speech with the Juventus players I remembered that in the past we had finished with two seventh places and that was not the right place for a team like Juventus,” he said. “For this reason, it was very, very important to change, to work very hard and to go back very soon to fight for the title. I remember this and I am very happy because that speech went into their minds.”
Similarly, the lack of European football at Chelsea this season echos his prior experience.
“‘When we started the 2011-12 season and Juventus stayed in the best position, the managers of the other teams said: ‘OK, but Juventus don’t play in the Europa League or the Champions League’. And I replied that I would prefer to play in the Champions League. Because teams like Chelsea belong in this tournament. In the Roman Abramovich era, Chelsea were always in the Champions League and I suffer a lot this year that we don’t play. We don’t play the Champions League.”
Conte first game in charge of Chelsea ended in a 2-0 loss at Rapid Vienna on Saturday. However, Chelsea fans are likely to simply be happy that the rhetoric at the club is now focused on the future rather than their abysmal recent history.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena