Jamie Carragher believes Antonio Conte has banished the ghost of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and reckons his arrival in the Premier League ‘almost slipped under the radar’.
The Italian has performed miracles in his first season at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea 10 points clear at the top of the table and into the FA Cup semi-finals, where they face Tottenham next month.
And Carragher, writing in his weekly Daily Mail column, reckons the media were ‘so caught up’ in Jose Mourinho’s appointment at Manchester United and Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Man City, that Conte, to a certain degree, was allowed to arrive without a fanfare.
Carragher writes: “Conte had an outstanding record in Italy with Juventus, taking them from seventh place in the table to winning Serie A three years in row.
“But he had no special pedigree in the Champions League, the competition we fixate on in England. So without that on his c.v. we allowed him to come into our game unheralded. It was our mistake.
“But did I expect them to be running away with the title in mid-March? No.
“This was supposed to be a shootout between Guardiola and Mourinho. Both men had more time to prepare their teams and both spent more than £100million to try to keep their rivals in the shadows.
“Chelsea shelled out money, too, on N’Golo Kante, Marcos Alonso, David Luiz and Michy Batshuayi, but I don’t think Conte secured all the players he wanted.
“Luiz was the prime example, given Chelsea failed with bids for Leonardo Bonucci and Kalidou Koulibaly, two defenders Conte knew well from Serie A.
“If I was a Chelsea supporter, I’d have been worried in the opening weeks of his reign, particularly after those back-to-back defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal in September. The team were not functioning, Conte was dour in interviews and he looked permanently downcast.
“Would there have been a point in those early months when a section of the Chelsea support hankered for Mourinho still being their manager? You always felt after Mourinho left the first time, in September 2007, that Stamford Bridge yearned for him to come back.
“When he returned with Inter Milan in March 2010 and knocked Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea out of the Champions League, they pined for him even more.
“The hankering continued last season even after Mourinho was sacked, as the crowd turned on Chelsea’s players.
“Now the yearning is over. Monday night was the line in the sand.”
Carragher was also quick to defend Conte’s style at Chelsea, with Mourinho among those to criticise the Italian for his defensive approach.
But Carragher continued: “It is nonsense to say Chelsea are defensive. Only Liverpool have scored more goals so far in the Premier League, but they have played an extra game. There is a huge difference between being a defensive team and being very good defensively. Conte’s Chelsea are the latter.
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“Conte has not allowed himself to be bullied and it felt like a huge moment on Monday when he stood up to Mourinho on the touchline as Chelsea knocked United out of the FA Cup. In many ways, it could be the moment Conte cemented his place in the affections of Chelsea’s fans.”
To read more of Carragher’s column, click here.