LONDON: Antonio Conte said he would be happy for Chelsea to creep up on the rails in the Premier League title race following their clinical 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur.
Chelsea were stunned 3-2 by Burnley in the opening game of their title defence, but weathered heavy pressure to ruin Tottenham’s Wembley house-warming party on Sunday thanks to left wing-back Marcos Alonso’s brace.
Chelsea also started last season unsteadily, losing two of their first six matches, only for a 13-game winning run to set them on the path to glory, and Conte sees no reason why the same formula should not work again.
“It’s not important if we are not favourites in this league,” said the Chelsea manager, whose preparations for the season were hampered by his club’s failure to significantly strengthen their squad.
“It was the same last season. We know we are trying to improve our team, our squad, and the club is trying to do its best in the transfer market.
“But I’m very happy when I see this type of game. I’m not speaking about football, but this spirit, this heart, this desire.
“I must be satisfied because my players gave me everything today. They did the same last season.”
With Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas suspended, Eden Hazard injured and Diego Costa still angling for an exit, Conte was obliged to innovate.
He opted for a new-look 3-5-1-1 system that featured David Luiz in midfield alongside new signing Tiemoue Bakayoko, who was pressed into action earlier than scheduled after overcoming a knee injury.
Conte described both players’ performances as “amazing” and said Chelsea’s ability to withstand Spurs’ pressure had been a display of “champions”.
Alonso swept Chelsea ahead with a magnificent 24th-minute free-kick and then netted the winner two minutes from time after substitute Michy Batshuayi’s own goal appeared to have rescued a point for Spurs.
A crowd of 73,587 made for an occasionally deafening atmosphere and Conte suggested the fervour of the fans had benefited his team.
– Pochettino ‘not worried’ –
“In this fantastic stadium, to feel this atmosphere is amazing,” he said.
“Our fans tried to push the same, despite 70,000 Tottenham supporters. But honestly, I think to see this atmosphere is great also for the opponents.”
Spurs’ defeat ended their run of 14 successive home league wins and means they have now lost eight of the last 10 games they have played at Wembley, their home this season while White Hart Lane is rebuilt.
But manager Mauricio Pochettino once again rubbished talk of a ‘Wembley curse’, asserting that his team had been “much better” than Chelsea and saying he was “very happy” with their performance.
“I think the ‘Wembley effect’ is not the reason we lost the game,” said Pochettino, who has had a pitch at Spurs’ north London training ground enlarged to Wembley’s dimensions to help his players adapt.
“The team played really well. It’s not fair to blame Wembley. For me, Wembley is one of the best places in the world to play football.
“We need to stop. I think today it was clear: if you love football and watch football, and want to watch the game again, you will see that Wembley was not the problem.
“We have to accept they were more clinical than us in front of goal. The opportunities we created, we didn’t score.”
Spurs went through the whole of last season without losing a single game at White Hart Lane, but despite seeing his side succumb to a first home defeat since May 2016, Pochettino believes his team have improved.
“We are in a position much better than how we started last season,” said the Argentinian, whose side host Burnley this weekend.
“The team is one step higher than last season. It’s true it’s disappointing to lose our first home game, but the character and performance were there. I’m not worried about the team.”