Last year’s Premier League was unlike any other, and for very good reasons. Besides Leicester City’s stunning rags-to-riches story, it was also noteworthy for the rapid decline of the defending champion, Chelsea.
Sitting in the relegation zone at one point, Chelsea finished the season in tenth place. Nonetheless, it was a complete shock to see virtually the same title-winning team languishing in the middle of the table.
This season’s Chelsea team could not be more different. Under new manager Antonio Conte, the Blues have taken the league by storm, with their closest competitor, Liverpool, one full point behind them. With eight wins in a row, it looks as though the title is within Chelsea’s grasp.
Chelsea’s change in fortune is even more remarkable considering the Blues’ sluggish start this season. At one point, following a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Arsenal, Chelsea was eight points behind first place.
Unlike the meltdown under José Mourinho that saw the Portuguese manager being shown the door less than a year after winning the title — not to mention the work ethic of the entire team getting called into question — Conte’s Chelsea has rallied to look like the Chelsea of the past.
A large part of Chelsea’s success is due to Conte’s influence, who was brought in by capricious owner Roman Abramovich to many fans’ dissatisfaction. Even some players themselves wanted Abramovich to keep caretaker manager Guus Hiddink, who kept Chelsea from getting relegated, instead of hiring another Mourinho-esque manager.
It is safe to say that these doubts have all been squashed thanks to Conte’s patience and determination that has shown he is indeed the man for the job. Under the Italian, several players who struggled to prove themselves under Mourinho have become integral parts to Chelsea’s latest title charge.
Midfielder Eden Hazard, a virtually invisible player last season, is perhaps the best example of Conte’s positive coaching. Under his management, Hazard has been one of the team’s most consistent players, rediscovering his old scoring ways.
To name another, Diego Costa has also improved under Conte’s rule. Costa currently leads the league with 11 goals in 14 games. But perhaps the temperamental striker’s greater achievement is that he has largely managed to stay out of trouble. Reviled at times for his unsavory actions towards opponents, Costa has kept his head down, collecting only four yellow cards this season.
Even Cesc Fabregas, who contemplated leaving the team in the summer after a disastrous season, has found himself rejuvenated under Conte’s leadership. He is once again in the starting lineup. However, this may change after Fabregas’ role in the ugly brawl during Chelsea’s thumping of Manchester City, which resulted in two City players getting shown the red card in the final minutes.
Perhaps what is most endearing about Conte is his willingness to include club icon John Terry in his plans. At the end of last season, it seemed as though Terry was on his way out, but Conte was adamant about keeping the club captain.
While various injuries have kept him out of the starting lineup, it now appears that Terry is indeed on his way out of Chelsea. It is admirable, nonetheless, that Conte would go so far for a player well past his prime.
On the whole, Conte has done an excellent job reviving belief in Chelsea once more. While critics attribute Chelsea’s success to an easier schedule — like Liverpool, Chelsea has no European football to worry about this season — the fact is that Chelsea has consistently beat other title contenders, including Manchester City and Tottenham.
Chelsea has only lost to Arsenal and Liverpool so far, and both defeats came early in the season.
While there are a few kinks that need to be worked out — namely why Conte brought back defender David Luiz, who rivals Alberto Moreno in terms of being unable to defend sometimes — this is a Chelsea team to keep an eye on.
With a relatively easy December schedule ahead, it looks as though Chelsea will further solidify its grasp on first place — a remarkable change for a team that started 2016 in crisis.
Vanessa Craige is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of The Beautiful Game.
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