Strong mentality key to Blues' top show: Conte

LONDON • What a difference a year makes. Last Dec 17, Chelsea sacked Jose Mourinho midway through a calamitous season that would end without European football as their star striker Diego Costa scored just 12 goals.

This Dec 17, a near-identical group of players marched to a club-record equalling 11th consecutive league victory, courtesy of Costa's deftly-taken header against Crystal Palace which took him past his entire tally in the league last season.

Their turnaround is not yet complete but their fans will know that every time Chelsea topped the table at Christmas - they will surely remain at the top next Sunday - the team have gone on to lift the Premier League title.

As Antonio Conte attempts to repeat the successes of the 2004-05, 2005-06, 2009-10 and 2014-15 seasons, the Chelsea manager insists that there is more to come from his men.

"We still have two games before the end of the first half of the season and then 19 games before we finish the season," he said of upcoming home matches against Bournemouth and Stoke City.

"Anything can happen. It's important we continue to work in this way and see the will to improve.

"You can always improve in different aspects... We must not look at our rivals and continue to work hard ourselves."

Costa will miss the match against Bournemouth after collecting a fifth yellow card of the season on Saturday.

Midfielder N'Golo Kante will also be suspended for that game, and Conte admitted the loss of two important players is a blow.

"For me, this can be an opportunity to see other solutions or other ideas," said Conte, whose switch to a 3-4-3 system during a defeat at Arsenal sparked the team's revival.

"I think, starting this season, the manager must be a tailor and try and find the right fit for the team.

"For sure, for me, it wasn't easy to arrive and understand very quickly the characteristics of my players. I needed a bit of time.

"I tried a different solution before changing the formation, but I think the most important thing is the mentality, our strong mentality. Also the hard work we do on tactics, fitness and other things.

"We touched different aspects to try and improve. But I must be honest: you can bring your idea of football but, if you don't have players who follow you, it doesn't matter."

THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Strong mentality key to Blues' top show: Conte'. Print Edition | Subscribe