Roy Curtis: Chelsea can stake Premier League title claim under guidance of Antonio Conte

SoccerBy Sunday World
Roy Curtis: Chelsea can stake Premier League title claim under guidance of Antonio Conte

ANTONIO Conte, a taut bun­dle of agitated passion, will never be mistaken for the point of calm in a raging storm.

The sheer force of his ambi­tion bleeds from a little general who began life in the impover­ished heel of the Italian boot.

All exaggerated Latin gestures, Chelsea's inflamed new capo has been colourfully described as the least tranquilised son of a some­times excitable nation.

Resembling a figure who had gulped down one double-Espresso too many at his local trattoria, his demented wasp persona was among the most compelling at Euro 2016.

Conte wielded his impressive ap­petite for glory like a lance, evoking comparisons with the young Jose Mourinho, the upstart who slid along the Old Trafford touchline as his Por­to side outsmarted Alex Ferguson's Manchester United.

The comparison was especially valid given Conte had already agreed to inherit Mourinho's kingdom.

Even as Italy departed the stage, the sense was that Roman Abramovich had found the superintendent to turn Chelsea back toward the best of their dominant past.

Italy seemed a team brilliantly led, Conte's ability to shape their disposition and self-belief never more evident than in a masterclass that snapped Spain's resolve.

If there is a mountain to climb to restore Chelsea's status among the English game's power centres, it would seem the Londoners have found the right man to lead the expedition.

That conviction only strengthened when Conte's first statement of intent was — at scarcely a quarter of United's outlay on Paul Pogba — the recruitment of N'Golo Kante.

Kante in action against Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas last season

If the transfer market has degenerated into a game of high-stakes poker, here was the closest thing to a guar­anteed winning hand, a game-changing flourish.

As a signature signing, Leicester's unquenchable ball of fire, the player who made most tackles and most interceptions in the Premier League last season, it was pitch-perfect.

Here was Conte announcing one of his immutable football theories, the insistence on hard labour as a template for achievement familiar from his body of work at Juve.

Kante's arrival was surely intend­ed as a wake-up call to the sleep­walking Chelsea cast he inherited.

A catastrophic campaign, one in which the Londoners lost 12 times and finished 31 points adrift of Leicester, spoke of a broken club.

The jolting scale of the Stam­ford Bridge implosion - one that earned Mourinho the stun-bolt four months into the worst title defence in Premier League history - is illustrated by a damning com­parison with Manchester United.

Even as Louis Van Gaal thrashed about like a blind man, Chelsea's meltdown was such that they fin­ished 33 points worse off relative to United last year than in their title-winning 2014/15 campaign.

Worst of all, the players - Willian and, maybe, their old symbol of de­fiance, John Terry, aside - seemed not to care a fig that they had sent the champions into a tailspin.

A cold mercenary wind seemed to have blown the great west London galleon irredeemably off course.

Onto the deck of this mutinous Bounty steps Conte, a first admiral who demands that a team performs to the very limit of their sporting lives each time they set sail.

Long before the end of last sea­son, Chelsea's year in pictures had blurred into a snapshot of a lost cause.

Eden Hazard, perched just below Messi and Ronaldo in the global hi­erarchy after a momentous 2014/15, went 365 days without a league goal.

Nemanja Matic, so recently their formidable enforcer, seemed decom­missioned of all the forbidding men­ace which made the Serb the league's stand-out defensive midfielder.

Cesc Fabregas resembled a novelist whose reaction to writer's block was to sulk and search half-heartedly for the old artistic flourishes.

Diego Costa, propelled by a full tank of spite, launched random attacks of unprovoked aggression.

A defence, airtight a year earlier during Mourinho's second coming, sprung leaks.

A team of dwindling confidence and motivation fumbled for form, conceding 53 league goals and win­ning just 12 of 38 games, their year-on-year points total falling by 37.

The more you examine the pres­sure-points that caused the fabric to rip, the more Conte appears a perfect fit.

A driver, an educator and the hardest, authoritarian task-master, he favours an in-your-face, up-tempo game.

He seemed almost pleased by Fabregas's red-card (a sign the Span­iard understands he cannot cruise through another season) against Liverpool last Wednesday.

"I like my teams to be aggressive and I like if my team plays with high intensity," he says.

Defensive security is the bedrock upon which Conte builds. His Juve and Italy towers were constructed upon a rock-solid Bonucci/Barzagli/ Chiellini foundation.

Already, in pre-season, Chelsea's house again looks secure, less vul­nerable to opportunistic burglary.

After a year of aimless drifting, of snoozing across the doldrums, Chelsea have awoken at the eye of a raging storm.