How England Can Find World Cup Spark and Repair Disconnect with Fans


London – The sense of anticlimax was inescapable. Gareth Southgate had spent his evening on the touchline dodging paper airplanes, tedium-induced origami, and blocking out occasional spasms of booing from the home support, and was left to plead for patience after the match. It matters not that plenty of nations would love to be in England’s position. Argentina are in real danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970 after drawing with Peru in Buenos Aires. Holland are third in their group and in peril, while even the European champions, Portugal, are facing up to the likelihood of a play-off. The same fate almost certainly awaits Italy. England, in contrast, have emerged unbeaten through another qualification campaign and yet the mood was almost apologetic.

Southgate, asked if he was enjoying himself a year into his tenure, mustered a rueful smile. “Well, weirdly, I am,” he said. “Although I’m not certain I’m standing here thinking: ‘Wow, isn’t it brilliant to have qualified for a World Cup,’ feeling all the love. But I get it, I get it. I go back to the first objective being to qualify, and we have done that. Now we look at how we build, evolve and improve. In international football you don’t have a chequebook of hundreds of millions of pounds to spend. So we have to coach and work to improve people and the team, and that is the great challenge. I get how people are feeling about us at the moment but I also believe in the potential of these players. I want to build a team that the country are proud of.” Now Southgate has Sunday’s qualifier in Lithuania and, at best, four friendly fixtures before he must select a squad for the tournament in Russia. So what areas must England address most urgently if they are to repair the disconnect between team and support?

Conjure some kind of creativity in central midfield

Adam Lallana should have played again for Liverpool by the time England confront Brazil and Germany, Fifa’s top-ranked sides, in friendlies next month and will be reintegrated immediately at international level, but he will find his reputation has soared in absentia. England’s shortcomings are felt most keenly in a lack of creation. Everything was a plod on Thursday, as it has been so often in a qualification campaign littered with slow starts, with the shepherding of the ball as labored as the movement of the players when confronted by massed defense. Oh for a bit of zest, some incision, a burst of quality in the pass. Lallana’s forte is his movement, and his front-foot urgency and aggression in the pass will make a difference. Southgate must wish Jack Wilshere had not slipped so far down the pecking order at Arsenal, for all that he cannot rule out the 25-year-old still making a late case for involvement. “We’re in a position where there’s no way we would dismiss any creative player,” he said. “But, of course, people have to be playing at a good level.”But where are the other options? Has, say, Harry Winks done enough to suggest he can be the answer? Is there anyone else out there? Southgate believes there are players in the system who will go on to impress at the highest level, but they are 18 months to two years away from being ready. So, if the personnel are out of reach, a system of play must be employed that taps better into what qualities the current collective do possess.

Is there scope to explore a back three again?

Arguably England’s most persuasive performance under Southgate’s stewardship was the narrow, and unfortunate, defeat by Germany in March when the manager experimented with a back three with some success. Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling and Michael Keane started in Dortmund behind a pair of midfield anchors, and with the energetic Dele Alli and Lallana supporting Jamie Vardy. There was width and pace from full-back and proper bite on the counterattack. It was a tactic to which the team resorted in the latter stages against Slovenia on Thursday when the visitors went for broke, and it may be an approach that ekes the best from this group against more fancied, enterprising opponents at the finals. England will surely be more of a threat on the break against better teams than they are when asked to break down opponents. Germany and Brazil will test that theory.

Pray English players benefit from involvement in the Champions League latter stages

Southgate was at pains to point to this group’s lack of experience – “they’re young players and most of them have never been to a World Cup so this is a big moment in their careers”– and acknowledged they will find themselves in the company of sides laced with Champions League and league championship winners. That rather overlooked the reality that, in Cahill and Ryan Bertrand, he has two European Cup winners, not to mention players who have claimed the Premier League with Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. But he was right in hoping the likes of Marcus Rashford and Alli, Kyle Walker and John Stones, sharpen their skills in the Champions League this season and thrive at that level. “The younger lads are playing more big games in the Champions League and, if they get to the latter stages and maybe the finals, all these big-pressure games will help this squad,” said Cahill. “We’ve held our own against the likes of Spain and Germany but to have the knack to go on and win those games … that’s something we can learn. To kill teams off when we’re playing well. That’s the gap.” Game management in highly pressurized occasions is something that has to be learned. The more familiar this group’s key players become with tense elite contests, the more likely England are to make an impact in Russia.

So, if we acknowledge we cannot be like Spain, can we be like Iceland?

“Are we going to become Spain in the next eight months?” asked Southgate on Thursday night. “No, we’re not.” But, if we can accept England’s options are not going to blossom unexpectedly, can we not at least aspire to be like Iceland at the World Cup? Not necessarily in style, but in structure, playing to a distinct and clear plan that brings the best out of those available? Iceland’s strength at Euro 2016 was an unswerving belief in their approach and an ability to implement a relatively simple gameplan. The approach only took them so far, of course, and they were found out by France. But, by then, they had seen off England and reached a quarter-final. Southgate would thrill at the prospect of doing likewise in the context of recent tournament traumas. Yet another troubling aspect of England’s qualification is that, for all the talk of progress, on the pitch a clear plan and thought process have not always been evident. The management team feel a plan is being implemented. They believe they are drumming it into the players at every get-together. Yet it is not always easy to notice from the outside looking in. If the supporters can identify what the team are trying to achieve, maybe the skepticism will recede.

The Guardian Sport

Eden Hazard Takes Himself, Chelsea to Another Level with Dazzling Display


London- It was about two minutes after the final whistle, while Antonio Conte and his victorious players were still massing to acknowledge their fans’ delirious celebrations up in the gods, when the television cameras focused in upon their man. Diego Costa was sitting among the Atlético Madrid dignitaries, initially wearing the same haggard, disbelieving look as those immediately around him, before sinking his head into his hands. It was an image to sum up the locals’ dismal night but, deep inside, even the departed striker must have admired everything his former team‑mates had done here.

Conte had always seen this contest as a means of gauging Chelsea’s real capabilities back in the elite, concerned as he was that even a year-long absence might have blunted their pedigree. In inflicting Atletico’s first home defeat to English opposition – and their first reverse in their new arena – the Premier League side have laid down a marker. The last time they travelled here, in the first leg of the 2014 semi-final, they had attempted merely to suffocate, eventually squeezing out a goalless draw.

It is a reflection of Conte’s enterprise, and the confidence he has imbued, that they sought and managed to outplay the Spanish this time round. Had they been slightly more ruthless their winner would not have been as late as the third minute of stoppage time.

This is the kind of result to alarm the other contenders, a victory crammed with positive performances: from N’Golo Kanté stamping authority all over a game at the higher level, to the effervescence going forward and the resilience and collective refusal to wilt once behind. There were other aspects that will trouble the perfectionist in Conte, though it would be hard to criticise his players for profligacy when the substitute, flung on late, goes on to score with the last kick of the contest.

Most promising of all was the instant telepathy struck up by Eden Hazard and Álvaro Morata, a partnership that seemed revelatory in its productivity all evening. Manchester City, watching on from afar, will fear the damage that pair could inflict on Saturday at Stamford Bridge if both have recovered physically. Costa must have drooled at the familiar quality of the supply-line. “Eden’s performance was amazing,” said Conte. “It was the first big game for him after the bad injury and his answer was fantastic, positive.”

There was reassurance to be had in Hazard’s brilliance. Conte had extended a challenge on the eve of this fixture, urging the Belgian to hoist his game to another level by dazzling in the Champions League. His response was emphatic, even if he had departed before his compatriot’s late winner. Hazard’s own moment had come just before the hour mark, collecting David Luiz’s cross-field pass on the chest, teasing space from Juanfran before whipping a glorious cross into the six-yard box. There pounced Morata, darting ahead of Lucas Hernández, to guide a header down and beyond Jan Oblak.

The pair had threatened to prosper all night, clicking early into each other’s wavelength with Atlético powerless in response. Twice in the opening eight minutes Hazard had found the Spaniard in space only for Morata, his every touch jeered on his return to Madrid, to drag shots wide of the far post. This was Hazard uncoiled, a playmaker who has been patient as Chelsea understandably dealt carefully with his rehabilitation from summer ankle surgery, tearing back into the fray with relish on his second start of term.

The scuttling runs, all low centre of gravity with ball glued to his instep, were incisive. The vision of his pass, and speed of thought, disconcerted Atletico’s experienced back-line. Juanfran and Godín heaved to contain him. Saúl Ñíguez and Koke sought to track him, but the Belgian merely scurried into areas neither was comfortable occupying.

Diego Simeone had been so alarmed by the visitors’ start that he tweaked his formation in a bid to close the space between rigid lines of four where the elusive Hazard was revelling, though Antoine Griezmann still felt compelled to hack him down to quell the threat. The 26-year-old had been asked to play in a freer, more central role, flitting forward from the tip of the diamond.

His goals will come. A tally of five in 32 games for Chelsea in this competition represents a meagre tally for a player of his pedigree and he found side-netting and, via a deflection, the woodwork from distance.

Regardless, his delivery was always menacing. Marcos Alonso air-kicked from his centre, Cesc Fàbregas poked wide from a ball slid along the six-yard box and Morata, liberated into enemy territory beyond a labouring Lucas, merely managed a heavy touch and a shot that squirted wide of the far post.

For a while it seemed Chelsea might end up cursing those misses but as it was, Conte’s bold substitutions – removing Hazard and Morata seemed surprising – yielded the rewards his side’s play merited. It is hard to recall a more impressive away display in this competition by an English team over recent years.

As Costa might have acknowledged in his post-match gloom, a standard has been set in this section.

The Guardian Sport

There is Irony in Diego Costa’s Deal with Atlético


London- There is an irony that Diego Costa’s tortuous departure from Chelsea should be finalised, pending the results of a stringent medical, just after a fixture when his absence had been so keenly felt.

Not the Champions League stroll beyond Qarabag or even the midweek saunter past Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup. But, last Sunday, Arsenal ventured across the capital and earned a point with Shkodran Mustafi, in most people’s eyes, emerging from the stalemate as man of the match. Even accepting that the centre-half is a Germany international and clearly a player of pedigree, it is hard to envisage he would have been quite so unruffled had Costa lined up for the hosts at Stamford Bridge.

Neither is that supposed to be a criticism of Álvaro Morata, the striker filling the void. The Spaniard secured from Real Madrid has been excellent, scoring goals and buying almost instantly into everything Antonio Conte demands of one of his players. Chelsea’s record signing will be a roaring success at Stamford Bridge. It is just that Costa would have disturbed Arsenal in a very different way.

Once it was clear the visitors were steeled for the contest, he would have bullied their backline, resorting to those same sly tactics that provoked a reaction from Gabriel in late 2015, when he was only retrospectively sanctioned for raising his hands at Laurent Koscielny moments before Gabriel’s dismissal. He would have niggled, scrapped, pinched and whinged, driving Arsenal to distraction until they let down their guard, and then he would have pounced.

That is the theory but it is a familiar scenario and one most Chelsea supporters celebrated regularly during the striker’s three‑year spell in the Premier League. That stint resulted in Costa scoring 52 goals in 89 top-flight appearances, finishing as leading scorer in each campaign and playing a major part in the winning of two league titles. He was downright prolific and not all those finishes were bludgeoned.

There could be subtlety to his game when the mood took him. But, most memorably, he led the line like a man possessed, fuelled by streetwise aggression and canny opportunism. There were 33 yellow cards but only one red, for two bookable offences at Everton in an FA Cup tie, for all the times he pushed gamesmanship to the limit. The 28‑year‑old was a player Chelsea readily cherished when he was one of their own and his last appearance, in the FA Cup final in May, was one of his brutal best. His performance that day warranted more than merely his 58th, and last, goal for the club.

José Mourinho had praised him as complete and Conte as fundamental to the team’s all-action approach. There was even a time when the Italian appeared to be transforming the player’s disciplinary record. The striker went 10 games without accruing a fifth booking of the season, and a one-match ban, towards the end of last year.

When he was finally cautioned for dissent at Crystal Palace in December he still departed Selhurst Park having scored the game’s only goal and, upon his return from the ban, would go on to play another 10 domestic matches without a yellow. Aside from his impact on the pitch he was popular among the playing staff – some team-mates have been in regular contact over the summer during his self-imposed exile in Brazil – a bundle of energy in the dressing room, a source of practical jokes and positivity when it suited him and a figure who had to be involved at all times. He was an edgy life and soul and his enthusiasm could be infectious.

The problem was that he was so high maintenance and just as likely to be stroppy as playful. The unpredictability was always likely to become a problem in the end. Rewind to January when Conte had instigated that remarkable revival within a group who had finished mid-table the previous year, Spurs having just curtailed a 13-match winning run, and it was Costa threatening to disrupt the newfound harmony at Cobham by expressing a sudden desire to depart for a money-flushed Chinese Super League. Or retreat to when he had pined for a move back to Atlético in the summer of 2016 or even further to 2015 when he had returned for pre-season overweight. There were regular reminders this was an unsettled player.

Management is about steering a route through such crises. The Italian readily recognised the forward’s qualities at the tip of his team and, in truth, felt he had no real alternative option available in January, with Michy Batshuayi still adjusting to life in England. Conte’s show of strength was designed to ensure Chelsea were not knocked off their stride. But once it became clear the negatives outweighed the positives, and with good warning conveyed to the board to find a replacement, Costa’s time was up.

The brevity of Chelsea’s 30-word statement, posted on the club’s website, announcing an agreement over an eventual £57m transfer had been reached in principle with Atlético on Thursday hinted at a club who had tired of the circus that comes with Costa. The same could be said for Conte’s text message over the summer, which prompted public outrage from the striker’s camp but was hardly revelatory in its content. The divorce had become inevitable back in January. That Chelsea squeezed six league goals from 16 appearances from the forward post‑dispute is testament to Conte’s motivational skills and Costa’s desire to be involved but it was only an uneasy truce. The fact the champions included the forward in their 25-man Premier League squad, submitted this month, was effectively for show. It made clear a potential route back into the fold existed, though, in reality, neither side ever truly thought it would be required.

Everything since ‘textgate’ has been horribly messy, all legal threats and weekly fines played out to a backdrop of painfully slow negotiations between Chelsea and Atlético while Costa trained on his own back in Brazil. Sold at a profit with loyalty bonuses waived, he will relish playing for Diego Simeone again and can now work more concertedly on his fitness to ensure he can feature from January once his new club’s transfer embargo has been lifted.

It seems inevitable that he will be in the stands next week when Chelsea visit the Wanda Metropolitano in the Champions League and it would be in keeping with his provocative character if he finds himself on screen at some point brandishing an Atlético scarf. Yet the visitors will not rise to it. They saw the best of him over two of his three years at the club and Conte has long since moved on.

The Guardian Sport

Crystal Palace Revert to Short-Term Policy after Itching Frank de Boer Experiment


London- Steve Parish had taken to Twitter on Sunday night on the way back from Burnley and his team’s latest scoreless defeat. There were irate supporters to address and plenty of disgruntled fans pointing fingers at a board who, up to now, have been relatively immune to criticism given their achievements in hoisting Crystal Palace from the second tier. The chairman’s responses verged on the defiant, from “football teams lose games” to “we know we are better than this”. In among the series of tweets, too, was one suggesting “we have to stick together”.

As it transpired that call for unity, echoed by first-team players on social media, did not extend to the relationship between hierarchy and manager. After a night contemplating what happens next, Palace confirmed Frank de Boer’s tenure would not extend beyond the 11-week mark, provoking an understandable wave of bewilderment from those on the outside looking in.Why sack De Boer for managing like De Boer? Surely he needed proper time, and more investment, to instigate the change in style even Parish had acknowledged was desirable? Did the improved performance at Turf Moor, where 23 chances were created but none taken, not demand a stay of execution at least until Saturday’s visit of Southampton?

Parish and the club’s American major shareholders, David Blitzer and Josh Harris, who were in attendance in Lancashire, would acknowledge that logic. They would surely concede, too, that mistakes have been made. Embarrassing errors that damn all the due diligence conducted over that month-long summer recruitment process following Sam Allardyce’s surprise resignation. The chairman, it should not be forgotten, had admitted “every time a manager fails at this club, I fail, so if Frank fails it is my failure too”.

There is no hiding from this fiasco, whether or not talk of fans’ protests is followed through on Saturday lunchtime, or even if Palace rouse themselves under Roy Hodgson to clamber clear of trouble. The fact remains that it was always unreasonable to expect a manager schooled in one clear footballing way to be parachuted into a club and an unfamiliar league and successfully change everything overnight. He is even less likely to succeed if his squad are bolstered by only two young loanees and a £7.9m signing from Ajax. There was a splurge on Mamadou Sakho, a talismanic figure for Allardyce’s side last term, on deadline day but, by then, De Boer’s influence on transfer policy had all but evaporated. Looking back, what chance did he realistically have?

Not that the owners will have warmed to the idea of Palace becoming a laughing stock. There is nothing to celebrate in a club emulating a 93-year record for dismal top-flight starts one day, then casting the manager adrift after the fewest number of games in charge the next. But at some stage, for all the desire to develop on the pitch, fear kicks in. Palace cannot afford to drop out of this division. This is a fifth year at elite level, the longest in their history, and their wage bill has never been higher. The owners – it is safe to assume the American investors, in particular – cannot contemplate slipping into the Championship. Once De Boer offered no clear plan as to how he would kickstart the team’s season in a meeting with Parish and the sporting director, Dougie Freedman, on the last Monday in August, the writing was on the wall.

Given the schism that had developed behind the scenes, the surprise was not that the axe fell after four games but that the manager had still been in charge for the trip to Burnley. This relationship had fractured beyond repair after the defeat by Swansea last month when a manager who had pledged for most of the week to revert to a more comfortable system had ended up reverting to type just before kick-off in selection and tactics. The sight of the Dutchman bemoaning his players’ lack of “courage” on the ball in his post-match observations was too much for the owners to accept. One would have hoped the interview process might have highlighted any potential personality clash but clearly something had been lost in translation mid-summer. De Boer had apparently pledged “evolution, not revolution” but his approach suggested otherwise. Parish might argue some of the Dutchman’s tactics were evidence he had been hoodwinked.

What so infuriated the board was De Boer’s apparent naivety when it came to the demands of the Premier League, as perverse as that may seem in relation to a man who excelled as a player at Barcelona, earned 112 Holland caps and claimed four Eredivise titles in six seasons as Ajax’s coach. Tony Pulis and Allardyce proved at Palace that the starting basis for any kind of success at a club of this size is a solid defence; be hard to beat first, and build any kind of progressive play from that base. De Boer could point to a fine defensive record in Dutch football but fell back on his principles, his weight of experience as a player and coach, and a favoured tactical game plan: a 3-4-3 forged on possession and patient buildup as if it was lifted from his Ajax days.

It did not seem to matter that some of the players he had inherited, purchased by Ian Holloway to Pulis, Alan Pardew to Allardyce, were clearly uneasy with the whole approach. Or merely confused. So it was hardly a surprise what they delivered wasa mishmash. Palace have still regularly flung balls forward in hope for Christian Benteke – no other Premier League side have played as many long passes this season – but they have lacked the width to exploit their target man and, before the game at Burnley, any zest in their buildup play to stretch opponents.

Before Turf Moor, when the manager’s selection had hinted at a willingness to change, the players had looked bewildered. Their only periods of dominant play had come in the final half-hour of the Carabao Cup second-round tie against the youngest team Ipswich Town have ever selected, the second half against Swansea once the visitors were sitting on a 2-0 lead, and in arrears at Burnley. On all occasions, Palace had reverted to something akin to a 4-3-3, the formation that would appear to fit the personnel.

The issue had been raised with the manager before the Swansea match, the hierarchy almost pleading with him to give himself and the players the best chance of thriving, but it fell on deaf ears. By the end of that plod of a performance, Palace had reverted to playing Joel Ward at left-back, Lee Chung-yong on the flank and Martin Kelly at centre-half. It came as little surprise that the latter’s display was so frazzled given he had effectively been made available for transfer only to be thrust back into the picture almost overnight.

Maybe those players’ involvement reflects the inadequate nature of Palace’s squad, a highly paid yet imbalanced playing staff blessed with seven centre-halves but only one fit centre-forward. Plenty of players were permitted to move on but their contracts are bloated and prohibitive for suitors outside the Premier League. That they were not shifted limited what changes the new man could implement.

Other issues alarmed the ownership. The fact Luka Milivojevic, a revelation in defensive midfield after signing in January, featured as a centre-half throughout pre-season before being deposited back in midfield on the opening day against Huddersfield seemed self-defeating. The same could be said of Ward – deployed at centre-half for much of the summer only for De Boer to pick him as a right wing-back in the first competitive fixture. Ward duly laboured, scored an own goal and appeared utterly lost.

Plenty about the selection for that game against Huddersfield had alarm bells ringing, not least the fact Jairo Riedewald, at 20, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, the 19-year-old secured on loan from Manchester United a few days previously, flanked Scott Dann in the new-look back three. As talented as the two youngsters may be, it seemed unwise to fling them into the fray in tandem in such a brutal division, even against promoted opponents. Better teams than Palace would struggle if reliant on such a green backline.

Then came the inevitable rumours of player discontent, always the precursor to managerial change, which had been seeping out for a while. Some did not take kindly to De Boer’s showboating in training, tricks and flicks and free-kicks bent in from distance, a la Glenn Hoddle. Others, it should be said, had no such complaints and felt they were steadily growing accustomed to his demands. The corner would be turned. Palace would revive. We will never know whether that was realistic.

Perhaps De Boer and Palace was never going to be the right fit. Even after four years dining at the top table, this club can still feel like a throwback. A set-up where only a certain kind of manager can thrive and, even then, not necessarily for very long. Sean Dyche, linked heavily with the post in the summer, would have been a more appropriate appointment in the circumstances when money is relatively tight and the implications of failure so immense. De Boer probably realised how awkward the alliance felt as quickly as the owners. He might argue he was too progressive at this stage of Palace’s development. The club would presumably counter by pointing at the dreadful results which have left the team playing catch-up, and ask whether De Boer is equipped for a dogfight.

Hodgson, in contrast, suddenly feels a safer option. He is anything but a leap into the unknown, and can come in and be as pragmatic, as he was with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. Yes, he is saddled with memories of Iceland but the Croydonian will consider Palace a homecoming and a chance to restore his reputation. Coping with the unremitting scrutiny of Premier League management will arguably be his biggest challenge because there is quality aplenty in this team which, if tapped properly, will steer them clear of trouble.

Turning to a 70-year-old hardly smacks of long-termism but Palace have probably waved goodbye to that aspiration. Four games in and everything is about survival once again. The board decided De Boer was not the man to achieve it.

The Guardian Sport

The Numbers are a Glittering Legacy of Wayne Rooney’s England Career

London- There is an irony that Wayne Rooney, a player plenty, including the England manager, had considered surplus to requirements last season, has chosen to retire from international football just as the national team were wondering whether they might be in need of him again. Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley are in rehabilitation. Other forwards have yet to find form this term. Cue Gareth Southgate’s telephone call this week, the tone of which, Rooney implied, was that the former captain’s presence might be beneficial in the squad for the forthcoming qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia.

Yet, in the six weeks since he held court in the People’s Club Lounge at Goodison Park and insisted he had no intention of retiring from the national set-up, something had changed. Perhaps that eye-catching start to his second coming at Everton, with goals in his first two Premier League appearances for Ronald Koeman’s side and energy aplenty in the draw at the Etihad Stadium on Monday, convinced him he should concentrate his efforts on inspiring an exciting and emerging force; to put Everton first and rekindle that old love affair after the messy divorce from his boyhood club 13 years ago.

To do that will require focus as well as fitness. A forward approaching his 32nd birthday would easily recall how beneficial quitting the international stage had been for Paul Scholes, his former team-mate at Manchester United, in prolonging a club career. The same could be said for Alan Shearer. Southgate was left with the impression from their conversation that Rooney partly puts this month’s resurgence in club form down to the fact he enjoyed a proper summer break, albeit with spinning classes interrupting his family holidays and a personal trainer in tow. His wife, Coleen, is expecting the couple’s fourth child next year. Maybe the Russia World Cup, which he had insisted would mark his swansong, might not have been quite so appealing in that context.

Then there is the issue of his role within the set-up. Southgate wants two players for each position in his side, but Rooney, even rejuvenated on Merseyside, was always unlikely to have displaced either Dele Alli in attacking midfield or Harry Kane up front in a first-choice England lineup. A new generation of players is making its mark. A veteran of six major tournaments had no desire either to block the progress of “the exciting players Gareth is bringing through” or, indeed, be reduced to a bit-part role. This was a chance for a clean break, a departure on his own terms. Given the service he has put in since that debut at 17 years and 111 days, he deserved that much at the very least.

In truth, and even with Monday’s crisp finish against City fresh in the memory, his retirement does not come as a surprise. The tributes had already been written, penned in Ljubljana last autumn when he was first dropped from Southgate’s side, and again in March when he was omitted from the squad, despite insisting he was fit, for the friendly in Germany and World Cup qualifier against Lithuania. It had long since become apparent England were moving on, particularly with Rooney’s contribution at Old Trafford no longer as integral. So, in his absence, the time felt right for reflections on an international career which had spanned 13 years and set him apart.

The numbers are his most glittering legacy. No Englishman can match his 53 goals for his country, the first of which was plundered at the age of 17 years and 317 days in Skopje while Macedonia fans burned England flags up in the stands. He captained his country at 24, no other outfield player boasts as many as his 119 caps while he has had 104 team-mates down the years. Those are exceptional tallies that set him apart, and the fact that his involvement at this level rather petered out over the last 11 months should not sully that record. When people consider David Beckham’s England career, they do not fixate over the succession of token cameos from the bench as his playing days wound down. So what if 10 of the midfielder’s last 12 caps were gained as a substitute? Rooney, at a fiercely competitive level, was the go-to man for five national managers.

And yet, for all the records as evidence of the longevity of his quality, the debate over what Rooney might have been will never truly subside. That he never illuminated a major finals after that jaw-dropping debut tournament, at Euro 2004, will forever count against him. The tearaway street footballer, fresh out of Croxteth, had set the bar so high in those early years and, while he was establishing himself as United’s record goalscorer and winning five Premier League titles and a Champions League, England saw the best of him only in qualifying. Injury or indiscipline blighted him at finals, and each major tournament, from Poland to Brazil, saw him confronted by the same topic for discussion: “Is this finally the moment? Can you finally rekindle that form from 2004 and make an impact at a finals?”

Underachievement in tournaments remains a collective issue, of course, but Rooney was the talisman; the figure considered England’s one true world-class talent. With that came more expectation, more pressure, and those moments when he occasionally cracked under the weight of it all: flashpoints in Croatia and Cape Town spring to mind. Yet he should not become the scapegoat for English failings. There are plenty of others who have thrived with a club side but failed to hoist their national team to the ultimate prizes, even if that regret will linger with him longest on the outside looking in. That desire “to have been part of a successful England tournament side” will nag at him forever.

Maybe Southgate can inspire such success in future, but it will not be with Rooney in the ranks. The time is right and everyone should benefit, from the youngsters making their mark in the national team, to Everton and the veteran himself. He can sit back and reflect with pride at those records he established. His personal achievements will take some beating.

The Guardian Sport

Chelsea Winded by Romelu Lukaku Blow, Antonio Conte Will Demand Answers


London- The first thing to acknowledge is that there is time for Chelsea to make a success of this transfer window. It is the first week in July, not the last in August. Those within the club’s recruitment department can justifiably point to the late arrivals of David Luiz and Marcos Alonso last year, and the impact both players had on the team’s title success, as evidence that significant additions can be plucked from the ether right up to the cut-off.

And yet, not for the first time, they have made a rather undistinguished start in attempting to capitalise upon their status as champions. Suggestions Romelu Lukaku had broken off from a holiday to undertake a medical overseen by doctors dispatched by Manchester United to the University of Los Angeles, such a favourite pre-season training haunt of José Mourinho’s teams over the years, left the striker’s suitors in London winded. Perplexed even. All summer the assumption had been that the Belgian’s innate desire to return to Stamford Bridge would be key to securing him from Everton.

But somehow, maybe as a result of complacency on Chelsea’s part, or, as the club would have us believe, upon the advice and influence of the player’s agent, Mino Raiola, they have been bypassed.

There may be public attempts to deflect blame for this failure this failure over the weeks ahead, and an insistence that the man they do end up signing for a huge sum to replace Diego Costa – Real Madrid’s Álvaro Morata, Andrea Belotti from Torino, or even an Alexis Sánchez or Sergio Agüero from a direct Premier League rival – had always been their first choice. But the reality is Antonio Conte had been pinning his hopes on Lukaku leading the line.

Those reports in Belgium, that the Chelsea manager had been in regular contact with the Everton forward over recent weeks detailing his tactics for next season and making plain just how key he considered Lukaku to his game-plan, have never been contested. The player himself expected to return to south-west London. The manager anticipated welcoming him back into the fold.

Now Conte will stride back into his office at Cobham on Sunday infuriated at Raiola’s influence but also demanding an explanation for the board’s apparent inertia over recent weeks. Sources in Italy, while aware the manager is distinctly unimpressed with the summer’s business to date, do not believe his sense of exasperation will prompt a resignation.

Indeed, he is understood to blame the agent and Lukaku himself for their defection. Yet the Italian’s contract extension which has been on the table for months remains unsigned. Neither will he be appeased by the club permitting him to add Davide Mazzotta, his opposition scout with Italy at Euro 2016, to a coaching staff shorn of Steve Holland. Instead, he will require answers.

Why was a formal bid for Lukaku submitted so belatedly to Everton and at a value effectively well below that proposed by United? Why, for that matter, is Willy Caballero – a reserve goalkeeper secured under freedom of contract following his release at Manchester City – still the only player added to the champions’ squad?

What is the hold-up with the medicals delaying the arrivals of Tiémoué Bakayoko from Monaco and Antonio Rüdiger from Roma? And the state of play on negotiations for Alex Sandro at Juventus? Big-money transfers can be tediously protracted and complicated but it is too simplistic to suggest the club are waiting to shelve the old Adidas training gear and parade an array of signings in glittering Nike kits.

The manager had hoped the bulk of the buying would be achieved early so he could fling them into the gruelling routine of double training sessions, and settle them into a squad who depart for a three-game tour of China and Singapore on 18 July. Some should have arrived by then – Bakayoko and Rüdiger are close – but the prospect of Chelsea departing for east Asia with Michy Batshuayi, a bit-part player last term, as their principal forward is suddenly very real.

The manager bears some blame given his rash text to Diego Costa, subsequently made public by the disaffected striker, indicating the Spain international has no future at the club. The player, who scored 20 top-flight goals last term, has started bidding farewell to his club-mates and if, as anticipated, Atlético Madrid submit a first formal offer for him over the next few days, he will most likely be absent on Monday, when the rest of the first team return to Cobham.

Chelsea were dismayed about Conte’s text message last month, not least because it wrested away a modicum of control that they might have had over determining Costa’s future. Maybe they have been awaiting the striker’s departure before actively moving for a replacement. Yet that SMS exchange served to expose the tension which has always been there, to a certain extent, between manager and hierarchy.

For all those late successes in securing players at the end of August last year, the Italian had cut a frustrated figure through most of the summer transfer window. Likewise, he had hoped his mid-winter business would amount to more than merely welcoming back Nathan Aké from a loan spell at Bournemouth. Now he returns to find a squad trimmed of John Terry, Asmir Begovic, Aké, Bertrand Traoré, Christian Atsu, Dominic Solanke, Kasey Palmer and Tammy Abraham – admittedly, by no means all senior players in the manager’s immediate plans – with considerable strengthening required.

It can still be achieved. Break the club’s transfer record to secure Sandro, and then sign a Morata, Belotti or Sánchez, and the manager may be appeased. Yet, until that is achieved, the suspicion will nag that Chelsea are allowing momentum to drain away yet again.

It happened in 2010 after Carlo Ancelotti’s Double-winning first season at the club, when they waited until January to secure the arrivals of Fernando Torres and David Luiz, first time round, to build on previous success. Then there was the summer of 2015 when Mourinho was dissatisfied with Pedro as his main addition. That was the close season when money was lavished on Baba Rahman, and relative small change spent on Papy Djilobodji and Michael Hector. It was hard to escape the sense that eyes had been taken off the ball.

That cannot happen again. Conte would not tolerate such a strategy, particularly with a return to the Champions League ahead. He hopes to challenge in that competition, not merely make up the numbers. Lukaku may have eluded them, but Chelsea must still make the market their own. For Marina Granovskaia and Michael Emenalo, there is much work to do.

The Guardian Sport

Antonio Conte Frustrated over Chelsea Transfers but Club will not Bow


London – Antonio Conte will be given short shrift by the Chelsea hierarchy if he attempts to exert greater control over the Premier League champions’ recruitment policy amid suggestions the manager is growing frustrated at the club’s failure to make early inroads in the summer market.

Reports have emerged in Italy, where Conte is on holiday with his family, that he may be considering his future, with his preferred profile of transfer targets and the number of proposed recruits apparently at odds with that of the board. The club are relaxed about the situation and insist the 47-year-old has not communicated such displeasure directly. They fully expect Conte to be in charge when the season begins in August.

Yet it is perhaps telling the contract extension to 2021 on improved terms, made to Conte towards the end of the league campaign, which would establish him as the highest-paid manager in Chelsea’s history, has still to be signed. He is wary of what awaits next term when his team will defend their title while returning to the Champions League after a season’s absence. With that in mind, he had hoped to make a significant number of additions, strengthening the first team with players of experience, and envisaged the influx of players would have been under way by now.

It is understood his instinct was to target players such as Leonardo Bonucci at his former club Juventus, a player who has turned 30 and would cost in excess of £50m together with a hefty wage package. Virgil van Dijk had long been earmarked as a potential arrival but Liverpool’s interest in the player – together with the uncertainty over the managerial situation at Southampton, who sacked Claude Puel this week – has significantly increased the Dutch defender’s valuation.

Conte was also disappointed that more effort was not made to secure the Belgium forward Dries Mertens from Napoli before the 30-year-old signed a contract at the Serie A club. The manager has also pushed for the signing of Juve’s Alex Sandro or Bayern Munich’s David Alaba at left wing-back, and watched with frustration as Manchester City, in particular, and Manchester United have made high-profile moves in the market.

There had been suggestions, again emanating from Italy, that Conte’s exasperation would lead him to push for greater influence over transfer policy, potentially wresting some control from the technical director, Michael Emenalo, despite always admitting his forte lies more on the training pitch. Yet Chelsea’s strategy in the market has proved highly successful over recent years, for all the regular upheaval of the management staff, with two Premier League titles secured in the past three seasons. Players are bought and developed, and invariably sold at a profit if they do not make their mark, not least those who graduate through the youth academy.

The manager was irritated by a lack of arrivals early last summer but the decisions to target N’Golo Kanté, Marcos Alonso and David Luiz, players of some pedigree, ultimately proved decisive in the Premier League pursuit.

Neither that recruitment structure, which leans heavily on Emenalo as well as input, usually towards the end of deals, from the director Marina Granovskaia, nor the transfer strategy is going to bend for Conte, who has enjoyed the unbridled backing of the board since taking up the reins last summer. The owner, Roman Abramovich, was supportive while the team endured early teething trouble and backed his manager as players learned to live with the Italian’s demanding training schedule and approach.

Abramovich’s presence at the club’s Cobham training complex over three days last September, in the wake of a damaging 3-0 loss at Arsenal, was designed to demonstrate the manager was being backed, with the owner making a point of sitting with the coaching staff in the canteen rather than mixing with the players, as he might have done in the past.

Chelsea still intend to spend heavily this summer, with the Monaco midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko expected to become the first recruit for around £40m and interest retained in the Everton forward Romelu Lukaku, who could cost a world record fee. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois will be offered new deals on improved terms, though agreements have not yet been reached. Neither will be sold this summer.

There has been disappointment at board level at the manner in which Conte addressed Diego Costa’s future last week, with the manager’s decision to inform the striker by text he was no longer in his plans apparently born of frustration over progress in the window.

That move, made public by Costa, has potentially cost Chelsea millions of pounds as it demonstrates the club’s eagerness to sell a player with two years left on his contract, weakening their negotiating position, and has prompted some tension behind the scenes.

Asmir Begovic has been sold to Bournemouth and is likely to be replaced by the former City goalkeeper Willy Caballero on a free transfer at the start of next month. Conte, who had been linked with a return to Italy at Internazionale only for Luciano Spalletti to take over as manager at San Siro, will expect more additions by the time he returns with his players for pre-season training at the beginning of July. He is expected to be joined in London by his wife Elisabetta and daughter Vittoria before the new season.

The Guardian Sport

Chelsea’s David Luiz: ‘I Took a Risk Coming Back to the One Country Not that Happy with Me’


London – It was actually David Luiz who had first volunteered the word “risk” in relation to his return to Chelsea. He was on the turf at Stamford Bridge last Sunday conducting a post-match interview in French with William Gallas, his team-mates’ title-winning celebrations crackling all around and a Premier League winner’s medal round his neck, when it cropped up in passing as he lingered, momentarily, on the life he had left behind at Paris Saint-Germain.

The theme was revisited in a stuffy media tent at the champions’ Cobham training base on Thursday but whereas the Brazilian had addressed Gallas through a beaming smile, this time his response bordered on the prickly. Probably with good reason. Why did he consider his return to Chelsea to be a risk? “You know,” he snapped back, albeit through a smile that hinted at disbelief. “If you want me to be honest, be honest with me. Of course, you know. I was winning everything in Paris. I was there for two years and won all the titles in France. I had a great life, great credibility with the club … I had everything.

“But then I took a risk to come back to the one country that was not that happy with me. Where they always criticised me a lot even after winning the Champions League, the Europa League or where I’d played all the games. That’s why it was a risk. And I love the risk. If you don’t take risks in your life – in your professional life but also in everyday life – you never feel anything new, so I [chose to] taste something new. I don’t like to stay always with the easy life but I’m happy now because I took the right decision.”

There is no arguing with that. David Luiz is a natural born winner. Securing the Premier League means he has won the title in Portugal, France and England, to go with the Champions League and Europa League from that first three-and-a-half-year spell at Chelsea.

He boasts an FA Cup winner’s medal from 2012, despite sitting out the victory over Liverpool with a hamstring injury picked up in the semi-final – he would play the European Cup final against Bayern Munich in considerable pain but still end victorious – and goes into Saturday’s showpiece with Arsenal hoping to win another while influencing matters on the pitch.

The list of honours is startling and yet there had been incredulity when news filtered through late last August that the centre-half was returning from France. Therein lies the source of David Luiz’s frustration. Life at PSG may have been as comfortable as it was successful but the real risk was confronting the reception that was waiting back in England, where so many assumed he was the same entrancingly flamboyant but error-prone player who had departed for £48m in 2014. Antonio Conte had been scouring Serie A for solid, dependable types. The Brazilian’s reputation hardly fitted that mould.

Yet his displays this season have proved the watching world wrong. Admittedly, he has benefited in the middle of a three-man defence, where he can be the ball player with more rugged and safety-first team-mates at his side, but the anticipated litany of blunders has simply not materialised. These days the mistakes are so rare – there was one difficult afternoon at Old Trafford, when Marcus Rashford was in the mood, but precious few others – that they feel exceptional, which would explain his bristling at the regular reminders of failings first time round. “I heard a lot of bad things when he arrived, that he was ‘not a defender’,” Conte said. “But we were sure we were signing a really good player we could lift up again to be one of the best defenders in Europe and, I hope, in the world. He has good technique, he’s strong, he starts our possession and has the personality to do this.”

That spell in Paris did change him. The Brazilian was always highly motivated and competitive, and retains that joyful zest for life, but his game developed at PSG. He returned a more accomplished player and a more mature man, even if the wild celebrations of the past few days have brought flashes of the free-spirited David Luiz back into the public eye. Where once he tapped into a reputation as the joker in the dressing room, these days he considers himself one of the motivators; a leader. He has taken N’Golo Kanté under his wing, ensuring the quiet man in the Chelsea midfield is properly involved, part of the gang. They are an unlikely pair but the 30-year-old saw it as his responsibility to make the new man feel at home.

Similarly, where many at Chelsea once feared David Luiz’s focus was continually being drawn to a possible move to Barcelona, now he is settled, content and at ease with his surroundings. He has moved – not back to central London, where he used to own a penthouse flat overlooking Putney Bridge, but to sleepier Surrey. “And, if you want to know about the money, I cut my salary to come back here,” he said. “But it’s OK, God has given me a lot, so I’m happy with this. Did I come back different? Always the same question … I think I try to improve as a person, as a brother, as a son, as a friend every day.

“If you don’t think in this way, if you don’t want to learn, then one day everybody will pass you, so I try to improve every day. The day I arrived back here I spoke with Conte – a great person, a great character who is passionate and loves his football – and he tried to explain his philosophy to play football. He said to me: ‘You are the player I want in my team and to improve my team.’ So I said to him: ‘I’m going to work hard for you and for the team’ and that’s it. I’ve been working hard a lot since the beginning of my career and to play 10 years consecutively in big clubs is not easy, and I try to give my best every season.”

He has brought it to Chelsea. A team who had languished 10th in the division last term have carried all before them.

“So I am the magic, no? The difference?” the Brazilian at the heart of their defence said. “No, of course I’m not. Two years ago they also won this title. Last season was not a good season for Chelsea but this season, we have done great since the beginning – and not just because of me. Because of everybody. Because of the commitment, the desire, the mentality we put on the pitch every day. That’s why we deserve it.”

If his was a risky return, then his gamble has paid off handsomely.

The Guardian Sport

Chelsea to Make Antonio Conte Highest-Paid Manager to Ward Off Inter


London – Chelsea are prepared to make Antonio Conte the highest-paid manager in their history and bankroll a lavish strengthening of his squad this summer as they seek to build on the team’s impressive Premier League title success.

Conte, who signed a three-year deal worth around £6.5m-a-season at Stamford Bridge last summer, is expected to open talks on new terms after next week’s FA Cup final. Chelsea are acutely aware the 47-year-old is coveted by Internazionale whose Chinese owners, Suning Holdings, removed the head coach Stefano Pioli last week after only six months in charge and would apparently be prepared to double Conte’s money to bring him to San Siro.

While the Italian has indicated an instinctive desire to remain at Stamford Bridge and lead his team into a Champions League campaign – he and his wife, Elisabetta, have been looking for schools in London for their daughter, Vittoria – Chelsea will seek to deflect Inter’s interest by offering Conte an improved contract which better reflects his startling achievements over a first season in England. He is currently paid less than Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Arsène Wenger and Jürgen Klopp, whose sides he has comfortably eclipsed this season.

Roman Abramovich is likely to offer him in excess of the £7.5m-a-year agreed with Mourinho in August 2015 after the Portuguese’s last title success for the club. Negotiations may still not be entirely straightforward, with Conte expected to seek the appointment of another Italian to his coaching staff when Steve Holland leaves the club this summer to become Gareth Southgate’s No2 with England on a permanent basis. Gabriele Oriali, a former player and sporting director who worked closely with Conte in the Italian national set-up, is a candidate for the role, though Inter have expressed an interest in taking him to San Siro. Chelsea had not envisaged adding to an already extensive coaching staff.

Conte will also seek greater input on recruitment, despite the close relationship he already enjoys with the sporting director, Michael Emenalo, and the influential football club and plc board member, Marina Granovskaia. But both manager and owner, ever conscious that Chelsea’s squad were fortunate with injuries this season, – Conte has publicly praised the medical staff – recognize the need to add depth to the playing staff if the team are to compete effectively in the Champions League.

The club are seeking to strengthen up and down their spine in deals which could cost in excess of £200m as a throwback to the lavish spending of Abramovich’s early days in charge. The Everton forward Romelu Lukaku, who is keen to return to Chelsea, and Alexis Sánchez are both targets, though persuading Arsenal to part with the latter may prove problematic. There is strong interest in the France midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko, a key member of the Monaco team who lead Ligue 1 and reached the Champions League semi-finals, and the Southampton center-half, Virgil van Dijk.

Conte, who hopes to achieve Chelsea’s second Double with victory at Wembley over Arsenal, is targeting two high caliber players in every position, a strategy that may also see the addition of two wing-backs to challenge Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, for all their considerable contribution this term. The manager would ideally seek to add either Juventus’s Alex Sandro or David Alaba of Bayern Munich to his ranks.

John Terry will depart under freedom of contract, ending a glittering 22-year association with the club, while Nathan Aké could seek a fresh start elsewhere on a permanent basis. It remains to be seen whether Diego Costa, subject of strong interest from Tianjin Quanjian, is still at the club in August. The Spain forward, contracted until 2019, was unsettled mid-season but indicated last week it is far from certain he will move to China.

Chelsea will also be resisting attempts by Real Madrid to lure star midfielder Eden Hazard to come to the Bernabeu and the club will likely offer the Belgian a new contract to make him stay at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea’s Premier League Triumph: The Key Moments That Led to the Title

Nemanja Matic beats Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris with a spectacular shot to secure an FA Cup semi-final win as Chelsea found a way to prevail.

From Antonio Conte’s tone-setting first public words to the dismantling of Everton we outline the most important moments in shaping Chelsea’s triumph.

Antonio Conte is unveiled as manager

The eighth permanent managerial appointment of Roman Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea had set the tone early. Antonio Conte had overseen his first training session down at Cobham, albeit with a shadow squad, given summer tournaments in France and the US, less than a week after Italy’s elimination from Euro 2016. He crammed his first public engagement in his new role between grueling double training sessions, and his buzzword, “work”, would remain consistent all season. He used it or one of its derivatives 32 times in a little under an hour that day. “I’m a worker,” he said. “I like to work and I know only this road for the club to compete, to return to the Champions League, to get back to winning the title.” The tally for the season, mustered from all his press conferences, is comfortably into four figures and his players, after some initial resistance, adjusted to the drill. His coaching staff were accepted, with Gianluca Spinelli’s arrival as goalkeeping coach helping to persuade Thibaut Courtois to stay. No one better personifies the manager’s philosophy than N’Golo Kanté, prised from Leicester City, who has been a blur of energy and industry and is now the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Football Writers’ Association footballer of the year. To this manager, work ethic is everything.

David Luiz’s surprise deadline-day return

The transfer deadline was approaching and Conte’s pursuit of defensive recruits appeared to be floundering. Interest in players up and down Serie A secured Marcos Alonso’s £24m arrival from Fiorentina, a fee that initially appeared inflated, but moves for Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, Roma’s Kostas Manolas and Alessio Romagnoli at Milan had been knocked back. Paris Saint-Germain had no interest in parting with Marquinhos yet were more willing to sell David Luiz, a player fresh from a comically poor performance in a Ligue 1 loss to Monaco. The Brazilian made clear to the French club that he would like to return to Chelsea, with whom his agents, Kia Joorabchian and Giuliano Bertolucci, have long enjoyed a fruitful relationship. A £30m fee was agreed swiftly, the player paraded soon after in a Chelsea shirt. There was plenty of skepticism at the time, doubts based on the occasionally erratic displays of his first spell at the club. Yet Conte felt he was recruiting a winner, a player used to hoisting trophies and a charismatic leader who could lift the mood. The subsequent campaign has proved he had also brought back a libero of a defender who could thrive between more cautious center-backs.

Half-time at Emirates Stadium, 24 September 2016

It was not all plain sailing. If losing at home to Liverpool had been a shock to the system, then nothing had prepared Conte for the horror of his side’s first-half capitulation across the capital at Arsenal. The hosts ran riot up to the break to lead 3-0, with the Italian’s mood thunderous in the dressing room as his players shuffled in shirking eye contact. Conte, by his own admission, is a terrible loser and the manner in which his side had been outclassed at the Emirates had him briefly questioning the task he had taken on. Yet, once his fury had subsided, clarity of thought kicked in. It was 10 minutes into the second half when Alonso replaced Cesc Fàbregas and the visitors, in an attempt to stem the bleeding, switched to a back three. They would not concede another goal for more than 10 hours of football. Victor Moses, a perennial loanee up to then, was drafted in at right wing-back for the subsequent win at Hull City and Chelsea had their system, the adoption of the 3-4-3 utterly seamless on the pitch if born, in truth, of feverish preparations back on the training ground during weeks devoid of European competition. Others have dabbled with three at the back recently but Conte and Chelsea put that formation back in vogue.

Manchester City are dismissed, 3 December 2016

Everything clicked thereafter. The team were defensively sound – their back three would remain unaltered until mid-April – while the forward thinkers, led by the liberated Eden Hazard and brutish Diego Costa, made hay. The thrashing inflicted on Everton on Bonfire night showcased their attacking prowess, with the hosts untouchable that evening. But it was arguably at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in early December where Chelsea truly served notice that the title could be theirs. A goal down and still staggered that Kevin De Bruyne had contrived to strike the woodwork as a second beckoned, Chelsea might once have wilted. Instead, with Fàbregas to the fore, they rallied. Their finishing was ruthless, with City, reduced to nine men before the end, left livid as the contest veered away from them. Guardiola’s side arguably never recovered their poise in the title race. Conte and his players departed convinced this could be their year, with that win one of 13 in succession to equal Arsenal’s record in a single season. After the last of that sequence, against Stoke on New Year’s Eve, Spurs languished 13 points back in fifth place. Bridging that gap ultimately proved beyond them.

Diego Costa is not permitted to rock the boat

Conte had gone out of his way to instill a sense of unity, whether organizing team meals in swanky London eateries, barbecues at Cobham, making an impromptu appearance at the staff Christmas party or buying bottles of wine and prosecco for all employees and signing a note to each, carrying a quote attributed to Hannibal (“We shall either find a way or make one”), thanking them for their hard work. Everything centered on that spirit of togetherness that he felt was essential to succeed. So when Costa was unsettled by interest from the Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian in mid-January, the belief that everyone was pulling together felt threatened. Yet, rather than panicking, Conte turned that training ground tantrum into a show of strength. Costa was dropped for the game at Leicester City, which was won handsomely in his absence, and the manager instantly reasserted his authority. Costa realized this was not a battle he could win, knuckled down and made a scoring return against Hull the following week. No one has questioned the manager since.

Wembley, 22 April 2017

The only time doubt crept back into Chelsea’s play was last month. An unexpected home defeat by Crystal Palace was followed a fortnight later by an uncharacteristically anemic performance at José Mourinho’s Manchester United, a loss that allowed Spurs, on a blistering run, to close to within four points. “That was our worst moment because we knew we had to play Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final and then, three days later, face Southampton in the league,” Conte said. In that context, his decision to rest Hazard and Costa at Wembley felt risky, given the psychological significance of that high-profile derby. It ended up feeling like a masterstroke. Spurs may have been the more threatening team at the national stadium but Chelsea did what champions do and found a way to prevail. Willian, the previous season’s player of the year, scored a double and, just as Tottenham sensed the momentum was swinging their way as they equalized at 2-2, the cavalry tore from the bench to seize the day. Hazard, another player who has benefited from the switch in system but a forward revived now that he is fit again, was untouchable, with his cameo as mind-boggling that day as his display, capped by a wonderful solo goal, in the dismissal of Arsenal earlier in the year. Those are performances that will linger long in the memory. Chelsea prized apart the Premier League’s best defense four times in 90 minutes and pepped their own run-in in the process.

Everton are dismantled again, 30 April 2017

The trickiest remaining test of Chelsea’s credentials came at Goodison Park at the end of the month. Spurs had beaten Palace in midweek and were preparing for their north London derby against Arsenal, eager for Everton to check the leaders’ progress. For more than an hour they had hope. Then Pedro, such a peripheral figure over his first campaign in England, belted the visitors’ opening goal from distance and the game was up. The Spaniard has scored 12 this term, an eye-catching tally for a player who had not seemed particularly suited to life in the Premier League, to pin Willian to the sidelines. He is another of this team’s unsung heroes, along with Gary Cahill – now a scorer of John Terry-esque timely goals, and another who registered at Everton that day – and the excellent Courtois, Moses and the steady Nemanja Matic. As a collective, this tight squad have carried all before them as Conte bellows his instruction from the sidelines. Their campaign has been a triumph.

(The Guardian)