LONDON • Antonio Conte is on the verge of winning the English Premier League in his first season at Chelsea and the uncompromising Italian has challenged his players to now go in for the kill.
Buoyed by second-placed Tottenham's 1-0 defeat by West Ham on Friday, Conte's side host Middlesbrough tomorrow knowing they need six points from their last four games to be crowned champions.
A title race that looked set to go down to the wire now seems certain to be a lengthy coronation party for Chelsea, who can clinch the trophy with a victory at West Bromwich Albion on Friday, providing they defeat 19th-placed Middlesbrough first.
That would cap an incredible revival of Chelsea's fortunes under Conte's astute leadership.
When the former Italy and Juventus boss arrived at Stamford Bridge last July, he faced the tricky task of uniting a squad split into feuding cliques following Jose Mourinho's sacking the previous season.
Against that acrimonious backdrop it was something of a gamble by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to hire a manager with no Premier League experience.
At first Conte seemed unsure how he would tame a team of prickly and fragile egos and the alarm bells were ringing when Abramovich felt compelled to make a visit to Chelsea's training ground following successive defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal in September.
Those chastening results have been heralded as the turning point in Chelsea's season as Conte switched to his preferred three-man defensive system and the Blues immediately reeled off 13 consecutive league wins.
But, just as significantly, he persuaded his players to buy into his belief that the foundations for success are laid on the training pitch, where focus on tactical discipline, patterns of play and supreme physical fitness have all been rewarded.
Ensuring that powerful dressing room voices like John Terry, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were not granted special treatment also won over players who felt undervalued during Mourinho's turbulent reign.
Conte gave a glimpse of the steely streak he has imposed on his players so impressively at his pre-match conference on Friday.
"I like to underline a concept, I don't have to keep the players happy. We must win," Conte said.
"You speak about 'happy'. I speak about 'to win' and to work very hard.
"It's very difficult to keep 20 players happy. I want players ready to fight and to try to put themselves in the team, to try to win together.
"Then, if you are happy or unhappy, I don't care."
The Italian also dismissed reports of an imminent departure of striker Costa this summer to the Chinese Super League amid reports he will be signing for Tianjin Quanjian.
The transfer fee is said to be worth up to £76 million (S$138.71 million).
"I don't know about this (potential deal)," the Chelsea manager said.
"Now it's very important for every single player and person who works for Chelsea to be focused on the present, because the present is more important for us than the future."
Having won the Serie A crown five times with Juventus, Conte knows how to insulate his players from the pressures of the title battle and it would be a major surprise if they surrender their four-point lead over Tottenham.
The 47-year-old is not taking anything for granted, however, and urged his players to focus on beating Middlesbrough rather than looking ahead to a potential title celebration later in the week.
"My expectation for this game is we must play a great game against Middlesbrough," he said.
"They are struggling to avoid relegation. We must be ready to fight, ready to find the right way to take three points."
With only one win in their last 18 matches, Boro must win tomorrow and hope other results go their way to have any chance of a dramatic escape from relegation.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN
CHELSEA V MIDDLESBROUGH
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