With six games to go, Antonio Conte's Chelsea sit atop the Premier League with a no-longer-comfortable lead over the chasing pack. Of course, the chasing pack is just a lone wolf at the moment with Tottenham Hotspur just four points behind their London rivals.
The FA Cup semi-final saw the Blues assert their dominance in a 4-2 win at Wembley in spite of benching their two biggest stars in Eden Hazard and Diego Costa. Mauricio Pochettino's young squad will be licking their wounds before they resume their league campaign while Conte’s side will look to seal a domestic double.
Ahead of Southampton’s visit to Stamford Bridge, Conte said at his press conference that should Chelsea win the Premier League title, it would be his ‘greatest achievement’. This after the Italian boss has won three consecutive titles with Juventus in Serie A.
“Yes, for sure it would be my greatest achievement. To win in England these days is not easy. To win this league is difficult, so we must be proud in our work.”
Will a Premier League title win be Conte’s ‘greatest achievement’?
Between 2011 and 2014, the closest title race the Old Lady competed in was the 2011/12 season where Max Allegri’s AC Milan finished four points behind Juventus. Following that, Napoli finished nine points behind in 2012/13 while the chasm was even wider in 2013/14 as second-placed Roma finished 17 points behind the champions.
Juve were clearly the dominant force in Italy while the legendary clubs of old went about rebuilding their squads after losing most of their senior winning core. In the Premier League, as many as six teams actually compete for the Champions League spots with no team assured of missing out on the top four.
However, Conte had the luxury of not playing any European competition this season – something four of the top seven clubs were involved in. Manchester United are still in the Europa League and stand a chance having made the semi-finals while Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham had a number of energy-sapping midweek fixtures.
The table is a clear reflection of that and Chelsea’s winning run to race to the top of the table was devoid of any continental distractions. It is quite similar to Liverpool’s league run in 2013/14 where the Reds eventually finished second since they only had domestic commitments.
So would it be his greatest achievement? We’re on the fence. It is an achievement worthy of praise because it is his debut season in England after all. But a number of factors went in his favour; primarily the lack of European football and an extra-kind schedule in the festive period when other clubs sweated it out with fewer hours between fixtures to rest up (Chelsea had more days of rest than any other club).
Conte takes a dig at Manchester clubs
While talking about a possible title win in his debut season is all well and good, it is what he said next that ruffled a few feathers. Big-spending clubs were brought up, albeit in a subtle manner, to highlight why Chelsea topping the league – and staying there while other clubs crumbled below them – was a tremendous achievement.
“This season it’s very important to understand it’s not always about who spends more money who wins. Otherwise, in this league, this season the name of the team [winning the title] wouldn’t be Chelsea or Tottenham or Arsenal or Liverpool.
Of course, we understand. Conte might as well have directly accused the Manchester clubs of splurging in the transfer market and the press wouldn’t have made a meal of it. The false sense of security one gets by not naming the obvious candidates in such off-handed comments only serve to highlight what appears to be a pressing issue that is on the back of the manager’s mind – one he cannot address himself.
To an extent, Conte does have a point. However, one needs only look at how much his own club has spent to draw parallels. Manchester City clearly spent the most in 2016 as Pep Guardiola looked to rebuild the squad while Manchester United’s spending has been inflated by the eye-watering £89m spent on Conte’s former player Paul Pogba.
But which was the only other club to spend upward of £100m in the transfer market in 2016? Chelsea.
The Blues have always had a history of spending big in the transfer market to get whoever they set their eyes on ever since Roman Abramovich took over the club. It’s only in recent years that their spending has been curtailed to an extent due to Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.
Selling Oscar and Ramires for a mindblowing £85m also helped as the Blues benefited greatly from the ridiculous spending of Chinese Super League clubs. The eventual move to the new stadium will only increase the club’s transfer budget in years to come.
“You can see that every season they spend a lot of money. But it’s right for every team to do what they think is best. Every single club decides their own strategy. But this season isn’t the only season the Manchester clubs have spent a lot of money.
“Look at the past. It’s normal. It’s right for them to do this, to reinforce their teams if they think this is the right way to win the title.”
Look at Chelsea’s own past, dear Antonio. Chelsea have been trolled relentlessly over the past decade or so for not having any history. The club was “founded in 2004”, they said.
Sadly, Conte seems either blissfully unaware of how Chelsea became a superpower in England in recent years or he simply chooses to ignore facts and focus on the current scenario.
Every club is obviously entitled to spend as much money as they can with innumerable commercial deals filling up each club’s coffers. The two Manchester clubs have sidestepped FFP regulations – which were based on weak foundations – time and again.
Chelsea have done it, too. So Conte's quotes only underline his hypocrisy when it comes to talking about the club’s arch rivals.