Antonio Conte has appeared to direct more thinly veiled criticism at Chelsea’s hierarchy when he claimed his team had found their level by being in a position where the FA Cup is the only trophy they can win this season.
Chelsea take on Leicester in a quarter-final tie at the King Power Stadium on Sunday afternoon and Conte has indicated he will pick his strongest possible side as he looks for an immediate response to being eliminated from the Champions League by Barcelona in midweek. The FA Cup has taken on particular importance for the Italian given his side also languish 25 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League and, with eight games remaining, stand no chance of retaining their status as champions.
That is a deeply frustrating situation for Conte to find himself in, as he made clear when asked to assess the importance of winning the FA Cup. “A lot of times we compare good season, bad season, if you win something. You have to know which is our level now,” he said. “Last season we did a fantastic job. Also in this season we are doing a fantastic job. But you have to understand which is your position in this moment, which is your level.”
Asked to explain what he meant by “our level”, Conte went on to claim that by winning the title last season, his players overachieved: “They performed 120%, maybe 130%.” This is not the first time he has done this during the current campaign and once again the inference was clear: the manager does not believe he has a squad capable of consistently winning major honours.
Conte has made no secret of his displeasure with the club’s transfer dealings during the summer, leading to a severely strained relationship with Chelsea’s board and the widely held expectation that the 48-year-old will leave at the end of the season with 12 months of his £9m-a-year contract unfulfilled. Should that prove the case, Conte will no doubt want to sign off at Stamford Bridge with one more trophy to his name, although he was quick to insist winning the FA Cup would mean little to him on a personal level.
“It’s not important if I add another trophy in my career. For me the most important thing is to work hard, to try to improve the club and the players,” he said. “I’m very satisfied for my job, for the work we’re doing. Me, the staff, my players. We’re doing a fantastic job, also in this season.”
On a somewhat lighter note Conte was asked for his views on Lionel Messi having watched the player score twice against Chelsea at the Camp Nou on Wednesday and, in the immediate aftermath of the 3-0 defeat, describe him as a “super, super, super top player”. Did Conte feel there were any players in England who compared with the Argentinian?
“Don’t joke,” he replied. “Not only in England but in history. Maybe only Maradona and Pelé [compare with Messi]. Players that can change the final result.
“I marked Maradona when I played with Lecce. We lost 3-2 and I scored one goal. It was very difficult to mark him. When you played against these [type of] players, you had to mark man-to-man.
“Before, football was totally different. Now you must be strong, fast, prepared physically. Talent is not enough to be a modern player. You can see when Messi goes for a tackle, he’s very strong. He’s not tall but he’s very strong. He’s fast.”
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