Heart Of Football

Uneasy lies the laughing head that wears the EPL crown

Chelsea and Tottenham finished first and second in the Premier League season that ended 13 weeks ago. Can the pendulum have swung over such a short summer break?

It can, if last weekend was any guide. For Chelsea opened their title defence with a shock home defeat by Burnley, compounded by red cards to Gary Cahill for a reckless foul and Cesc Fabregas for ridiculous behaviour.

A title won through iron discipline is already jeopardised by signs of internal strife, and by the fact that Diego Costa has gone Awol to his parents' home in Brazil while he tries to dictate where and for how much Chelsea sell him.

The coach Antonio Conte earned an improved salary after turning around Jose Mourinho's failure and winning the EPL in his first season. Yet Conte put on a clown's face in front of the cameras on Friday.

Diego Costa had told a journalist that Chelsea treated him "like a criminal", and he will not train until or unless he is sold back to the only club he wants to play for, Atletico Madrid.

Yet last January, Costa sulked because Chelsea wouldn't sell him in mid-season to join the gold rush in China.

Apart from the fact that Atletico are banned from signing - or from using new players - until January, what Chelsea want for Costa and what the Spaniards hope to pay are not even on a discussion level.

So, while Conte unquestionably erred when he chose to tell his top striker to get lost by text, the supposed laugh that he put on during Friday's media conference was as convincing as a hyena.

Behind that fake laughter, Conte is brooding.

The bookmakers have him lined up to be the first manager sacked in the EPL this season - and not simply because Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich appears to be entering another period of turbulence in his relationships.

Behind Antonio Conte's fake laugh last Friday, he is brooding. The Italian boss is the bookies' favourite to be the first EPL casualty in 2017-18.
Behind Antonio Conte's fake laugh last Friday, he is brooding. The Italian boss is the bookies' favourite to be the first EPL casualty in 2017-18. PHOTO: REUTERS

The boss of the Bridge is about to pay off his third wife. Reports from Russia suggest that the divorce settlement with Dasha Zhukova, the mother of Abramovich's two youngest children, will cost him around £200 million to £300 million (S$351 million to S$526 million).

That equates to what the Qatari owners of Paris Saint-Germain paid for Neymar when salary and agents' fees are taken into account.

So, while Conte unquestionably erred when he chose to tell his top striker to get lost by text, the supposed laugh that he put on during Friday's media conference was as convincing as a hyena. 

Yet, while the divorce is Abramovich's own affair, there are people he trusts to buy and sell the stars of Chelsea. The tenure of a coach, even a winning one, is too short to allow him the responsibility a manager normally gets to build his own squad.

As at Liverpool, the "manager" finds himself not always party to the buying and selling process.

Remarkably, Chelsea's whirligig of managerial hiring and firing has delivered Chelsea 15 trophies in the 14 years of the "Roman" era - the EPL four times, the FA Cup four times, the League Cup thrice, the Community Shield twice, the Champions League once and the Europa Cup once.

Forget Costa because Chelski appear to have already done so, barring the effort to extract as much as possible out of shutting the door behind him.

His place now is a straight fight between Alvaro Morata, the new £70 million Spaniard, and Michy Batshuayi, the Belgian who, apart from the very end of last season, played in Diego Costa's shadow.

Morata, when he is acclimatised to Premier League pace, looks the real deal; a clever mover and intuitive predator who had a rough deal at Real Madrid and a short but impressive time at Juventus.

Then there is Tiemoue Bakayoko, when he is fit to show the midfield energy he exhibited at Monaco last season. And Antonio Rudiger, the towering German central defender who, of all the summer signings, probably was Conte's choice.

If and when the dust settles on this summer's turnover, maybe all Conte needs is time. Maybe represents a big word.

What of Spurs? They have what most clubs crave, stability in the boardroom and the manager's seat.

Mauricio Pochettino buys into the Tottenham philosophy of building as much as possible on emerging English stock. He loses a player or two when the likes of Manchester City make an offer for Kyle Walker that would both break the bank of Tottenham and wreck the wage ceiling there.

Pochettino even seems patient enough to wait, and wait and wait, for chairman Daniel Levy to delay buying new summer signings.

It is all part of Levy's accountancy instincts to squeeze every penny, to wind down the clock, and hope to buy on the cheap or sell at high premium.

Tottenham are waiting on work-permit regulations before they can field Davinson Sanchez, the 21-year-old Colombian defender signed from Ajax for £28 million up front, and add-ons related to success.

But Spurs have a problem that is nothing to do with disagreements between owner, coach or players. It relates to their home.

Tottenham versus Chelsea takes place at Wembley Stadium today. It is a season-long temporary "home" while White Hart Lane is being rebuilt to 21st-century standards, and 21st-century profitability.

The shift across London is short, but mammoth in Tottenham culture. The team won 53 points out of the last possible 57 at the Lane, but have a wretched record at Wembley where they played last season's Champions League games.

The national stadium lifts opponents, the very name Wembley has a historic ring that Pochettino knew about all the way to his childhood in Argentina.

But the pitch is wider, longer, vaster than White Hart Lane, and the fans are further from the team.

Tottenham are trying everything to make it feel like home. They have even transported two golden cockerel figures, the club's emblem, from White Hart Lane and placed them on either side of Sir Alf Ramsey's statue in the Wembley tunnel.

Ramsey was Tottenham's full-back in the 1950-51 side that won the league and FA Cup double. He also managed England's 1966 World Cup win, at the old Wembley.

So Spurs can win there. It's just a matter of conviction.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'Uneasy lies the laughing head that wears the EPL crown'. Print Edition | Subscribe