Manchester City’s lead in the Premier League is mathematically surmountable, but that’s about it. No matter. Chelsea are well alive in three competitions, and this season can still bring excitement and silverware to Stamford Bridge.
Antonio Conte conceded Chelsea’s Premier League defence after the Blues dropped their fourth game of the season against West Ham. The bounce-back win over Huddersfield rekindled some hope, but Manchester City’s display against the comical Tottenham Hotspurs laid to rest any realistic hopes of Chelsea closing the gap. Yes, Spurs were Spursy. But City’s quality and intensity were at levels Sir Alex Ferguson would envy. City evinces no sign of complacency or tactical vulnerabilities other teams can exploit. Even an injury crisis would not dent their pursuit – not when they had Gabriel Jesus start on the bench and David Silva out of the lineup on Saturday.
Winners never want to concede, and Chelsea and Antonio Conte are most certainly winners. But winners do not become so by evading or denying reality, and the reality of the Premier League title chase is draped in sky blue ribbons.
No matter. Chelsea are on to the knockout rounds of the Champions League, are one round further than last season in the EFL Cup and will soon start their FA Cup campaign. The Champions League is a distant challenge, and a pair of domestic cups do not equal a Premier League title. But winners want trophies, and Chelsea still have three to play for.
Since Roman Abramovich bought the team and installed Jose Mourinho in 2003, Chelsea have had only six seasons where they did not win at least one of the Premier League, FA Cup or League Cup. In one of those years the Blues won the Europa League.
Chelsea have won some form of domestic double four times – five if you count the Community Shield. Their most recent FA Cup win came two weeks before the Champions League win.
The television commentators for Saturday’s game remarked how quiet Stamford Bridge was for long stretches, and noted a similar trend at Old Trafford. They attributed it to the fans’ recognition of Manchester City’s incipient title and how, with the league no longer contested, Chelsea’s and Manchester United’s games were unimportant and anti-climactic.
Well. Antonio Conte and Roman Abramovich would not accept that assessment. Sir Alex Ferguson certainly would not, either. And if any Chelsea fans believe it, they should find their way to north London where that attitude would be more at home.
One of the more absurd yet enlightening statements of this season was from Mauricio Pochettino when he said he was only interested in winning “real trophies.” The Tottenham boss said the Premier League and Champions League were “real trophies,” implied the FA Cup was a pleasant after-thought and said the Carabao Cup “will not change the life of Tottenham.”
Prioritizing competitions is one thing, particularly as it relates to squad rotation. But dismissing competitions so casually is a signal to your players – from the debutantes to the stars – that they can shut off for a game or two.
Tottenham’s dramatic dip in performance after Pochettino conceded Spurs’ title chase was one more illustration of the mentality at White Hart Lane. Clubs and teams spend years building a culture of winning and excellence. Not that Tottenham have ever done so, but if they had, Pochettino made the mistake of thinking it could be turned on and off at will. It cannot. It must be sustained every day, in all competitions and the training in between.
That quality is the most dramatic sign of Manchester City’s excellence and ambition. No matter how strong their lead, they always want more goals.
And that is why it is so important to see Antonio Conte’s trademark celebrations for Chelsea’s goals and hear him shouting instructions into stoppage time when up 3-1 against Huddersfield. He cannot and will not diminish his passion for this game or the club. Even if he can’t win the league he still wants to win the games. And if he can’t win the games he still wants to score as many goals as he can. And if he can’t score goals he still expects his players to make life as difficult as possible for the opponent.
Most importantly, Conte knows the passion and desire his Blues bring to one competition carries over to the others. He cannot mope through the Premier League and muddle through the Carabao Cup and then hope his players bring their best game to the Champions League.
Winning the Carabao Cup in February would not be a consolation prize. It would be fuel for the remaining competitions. If, at the end of May, the Carabao Cup is all Chelsea have to show for the season, at least they added something to their trophy case. It will be one more trophy than they had before, one more season with something to show and one more example of what it means to be a winner.