London: Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has hit back at Jose Mourinho’s claim that only Manchester United are willing to publicly declare they can win the Premier League.
On the eve of the new campaign, Mourinho has set his sights on the English title and poured scorn on the more cautious attitudes of the managers of United’s title rivals.
Conte, in his first season with Chelsea, new Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, Arsenal chief Arsene Wenger and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp must have been prominent in Mourinho’s thoughts when he made the jibe.
But few are as outspoken as the spotlight-hogging Mourinho, who is in his first season at Old Trafford after being sacked by Chelsea in December, and Conte made it clear he wasn’t fazed by the United manager’s brash taunts.
“Other things scare me, not to say if I will win or lose in football,” Conte, who will lead Chelsea in the league for the first time against West Ham United on Monday, said.
“In this league it is very tough. At the moment six or seven teams can fight to win the title.
“Chelsea is a great team and we must work hard to be in that group.”
After finishing 10th at the end of a miserable campaign last season, Conte has arrived at Stamford Bridge to find a squad of fragile egos looking for inspiration and leadership following the breakdown of their relationship with Mourinho.
One of the main malcontents during the final days of the Mourinho era was Diego Costa and the Spain striker was repeatedly linked with a move back to his old club Atletico Madrid during the close-season.
Conte has so far kept hold of the volatile forward, believing Costa is a kindred spirit who can be a key figure if his passion is harnessed in the right way.
Challenging Costa, whose goals fired Chelsea to the title two seasons ago, to improve in all areas, Conte said: “I don’t like to speak about single players, but this is an exception. Diego Costa is a great player.
“I know he is fantastic finisher, a fantastic player. But I think Diego can improve a lot. I hope for this. I try to improve all my players.
“I’m seeing a good attitude from Diego to work and improve in different situations. Diego can give a lot to this team.
“I like the spirit of Diego. He always shows a great passion. I’m the same. I have great passion for football.
“He doesn’t want to lose. We want this passion in the team. It’s important. It helps you to overcome difficulties.”
Asked if he had set Costa a 20-goal target for the season, Conte said: “Why 20? not 30! I never ask this of my strikers.
“I ask him and all the players for a great attitude. I demand this from him. Then the goals will follow I’m sure.
“For me he is an important player. He played a fantastic season two years ago when Chelsea won the title. I’m happy he stayed here.”