LONDON • Antonio Conte has offered context to Chelsea's imminent title success by claiming that their nearest challengers, Tottenham Hotspur, are "more advanced" in their development and would have won the Premier League at a canter if his own players had not produced a remarkable campaign under his management.
The leaders, now four points clear with a game in hand, can claim the championship by defeating Middlesbrough (this morning, Singapore time) and West Bromwich Albion (on Friday) after Tottenham's pursuit finally stumbled with a 1-0 defeat at West Ham United last Friday.
It would be the fifth domestic title secured under Roman Abramovich's ownership, and arguably one of the most impressive, given the team's spluttering mid-table league finish last season.
Conte pointed to those toils, endured under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink, as evidence that Chelsea had initially appeared unlikely title challengers.
"I think if you compare Tottenham Hotspur with Chelsea, they had an advantage this season," the Italian said.
"Mauricio Pochettino is a really good manager and is working with his team for a third year.
"In this season, if Chelsea had not performed in this way, Tottenham would have won the title without difficulty.
"Only this great season (from us) is pushing them to fight and, maybe, to win or not to win the title. But, I repeat, Tottenham's position for me is more advanced if you compare both teams."
That represents a shift in Conte's outlook, given that only a month ago he had argued expectation comes with the territory at Stamford Bridge, where winning is considered "normal" while losing is "not a disaster" at Spurs.
With his team now on the verge of the title, he dismissed the suggestion that without European football they had benefited from a far less onerous schedule than that of Pochettino's side.
"Don't forget that Tottenham dropped at the first group stage, and then dropped in the first game in the Europa League (against Gent)," he said. "If you consider our games and their games, there is a difference of what, eight games?
"But if you consider the squads, the numbers in each squad, you can see the difference: one team prepared to play the Champions League with 25 or 26 players, and another prepared to play only the league, the FA Cup and the League Cup.
Conte's decision to buy N'Golo Kante from Leicester City for £32 million (S$58.3 million) has paid off handsomely for Chelsea as well as the player himself.
The midfielder completed a prestigious awards double yesterday when he was named Footballer of the Year by Britain's Football Writers' Association (FWA).
The France international, 26, beat team-mate Eden Hazard to the award, voted on by the FWA's 340 members, having last month been voted Players' Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers' Association.
Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli was third.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE