In a season when Chelsea have won so many matches, they have dismissed the vast majority of challenges, but there is one that has so far gone without answer. Until now. And Antonio Conte was unequivocal.
Because, one undercurrent to their overwhelmingly impressive campaign has been former manager Jose Mourinho regularly chipping away, and on more than one occasion bringing up how certain sides - namely Antonio Conte’s - are now being praised for the type of counter-attacking his Chelsea champions apparently used to get criticised for.
The Portuguese, who returns to Stamford Bridge for the second time as Manchester United manager for Monday’s FA Cup sixth-round tie, brought it up almost out of nowhere after his team’s 1-1 draw at Everton in December and then their 3-0 win at Leicester City.
When this was naturally put to Conte ahead of their next meeting, he did not seem to want to get into any kind of dispute with Mourinho - but clearly wanted to pointedly dismiss such an argument. He emphatically rejected such a description.
“I have to tell you one thing, not only here... but I never, ever, ever train for the counter-attack; never prepare for the counter-attack,” Conte asserted. “Never. I think the counter-attack is an option, above all if you have this type of player, players who are very, very fast.
Also [Diego] Costa is a counter-attacking man, and Willian and Pedro. It's normal to have this situation with space, so they know what they can do. For me, it's important to train the other aspects: when we have the ball, when we stay almost always in our opponents' half, to prepare when we are attacking. It's very difficult to train counter-attacking, but it's not my priority.”
Performances like Chelsea’s own devastating 5-0 win over Everton would appear to back that up, and it seems really a case that Conte’s side just have a number of potential weapons, not least a sturdy backline. They can afford to manage matches.
“There are different situations in games,” Conte added. “You have to be prepared to play in different parts of the pitch. If you stay for 70 minutes in your opponents' half, you must know what to do otherwise you are in trouble. Sometimes you find teams who force you to defend in your own half, and you have to know how to react in this moment. You train for situations and it's important to have players who are prepared for this situation.”
Conte also re-iterated his stance that United have the best squad in the league along with Manchester City, and that the trip from Russia after Thursday’s 1-1 Europa League with Rostov should not necessarily be a disadvantage because they have been allowed four days’ rest.
“There are four days to recover, and this game is an important game for us, for them. I think their formation will be very good. Also because, I repeat, United and City have the best squads in this league… “For the number of players in their squad, I think so. The number of quality, also.
“I don't know. But I repeat, we could play also Sunday, or Saturday, if the federation decided it. But we are playing on Monday. I think that the federation showed great respect for Manchester United to play the last day available the FA Cup. I think this.”
Conte still paid great compliments to Mourinho, describing him as one of the best managers in the world, and saying he aims to emulate his success at Stamford Bridge. The Portuguese won three league titles and four domestic cups across almost six years at Chelsea.
Chelsea potential summer 2017 transfers
Chelsea potential summer 2017 transfers
1/9 IN: James Rodriguez
With Oscar departing for China, James Rodriguez could be the perfect long-term replacement for the Brazilian. Rodriguez hasn’t had much game time this season and might be looking for a move away from the Bernabeu. It looks like Chelsea will tussle with the likes of Manchester United to secure his signature.
2/9 IN: Ricardo Rodriguez
The 24-year-old Swiss international could be the perfect fit in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 formation. The Wolfsburg player is a massive threat from dead ball situations and loves to attack. Recent reports are suggesting that the Blues have beaten Arsenal to secure his services.
3/9 IN: Arturo Vidal
Conte is reportedly looking to bring his former employee to Stamford Bridge in a deal that could be worth up to £38 million. Bayern’s box-to-box midfielder played under the Italian tactician at Juventus where they reached the Champions League final, losing 3-1 to Barcelona.
4/9 IN: Federico Bernardeschi
Fiorentina winger Bernardeschi has been on sparkling form for the Viola this campaign. Conte took him to the Euros in the summer and he could provide solid competition for Victor Moses for the right-wing starting berth.
5/9 IN: Tiemoue Bakayoko
Monaco have been free-scoring this season but their whole team deserves credit. Bakayoko has been a mainstay in the defensive-midfield position, and his combative style has drawn comparisons to N’Golo Kante. Chelsea would have to dig deep to make this deal materialise, though.
6/9 IN: Franck Kessie
The 19-year-old has been the breakthrough star in Serie A this season. In an Atalanta side that has performed above expectations this campaign, Kessie has played an integral role. A lot of Europe’s elite are in pursuit of the Ivorian.
7/9 IN: Faouzi Ghoulam
After bringing Marcos Alonso in from Fiorentina last summer summer, Conte may want to provide some competition for the Spaniard and Ghoulam may well be the answer.
8/9 OUT: Michy Batshuayi
With Diego Costa performing so well, it is hard to see where the young Belgian fits in to Conte’s setup. French side Lille were left rebuffed after they reportedly lodged a loan bid which was rejected by the Blues, but it remains to be seen whether they will keep him at Stamford Bridge.
9/9 OUT: Branislav Ivanovic
After starting the first six games of the season, the Serbian defender has struggled to fight his way back into the Chelsea team. After a change of formation from Conte, it seems as though he might not suit the Italian’s style. Reports have also proposed that Barcelona may be in line for a shock swoop.
“I think it's very difficult to put a table on the managers. Very difficult to do this. For sure, he's one of the best in the world. Yeah.”
“I think Jose Mourinho wrote a good part of the history of Chelsea. He won a lot with the players. He did a great job here in Chelsea. But it's important, always, not to forget this. I have great respect for him because he's a winner. I like his mentality. He has a winning mentality. For sure, he's one of the best in the world and, here, he did a great job. I think every single fan must respect him.”
“His history with Chelsea was great. I know very well he's in the heart of Chelsea's fans. It's great this because he deserves it. For sure, I hope in the future to emulate his wins here.”