Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has reckoned that Chelsea still bear the scars of last season, wherein they finished a lowly 10th in their disastrous title defence, as they prepare to welcome back Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Former Chelsea boss Mourinho, who is now in charge of rivals Manchester United, returns to the Bridge for the first time since being sacked by the club midway through the 2015-16 season, with the then defending champions hovering just one point above the relegation zone after losing nine of their 16 Premier League games.
As Guus Hiddink took interim charge, the Blues did improve marginally to finish in the top half of the table but failed to qualify for any European competitions for the first time in nearly two decades. And Conte revealed that his players are still recovering from the effects of such a traumatic start to the previous season, as the former fan favourite Mourinho returns to his old stomping ground.
The Italian manager said: “When there are these types of season – very bad seasons, because we finished 10th in the table – it’s normal that something remains in the players. In their minds. In their heads. In this situation, the risk is to lose the confidence. For this reason, I continue to repeat: this new season for Chelsea is very important.”
Conte went on to add that the players must be prepared to work hard, and urged the fans to get behind the team if they yearn to get back to the highs of the title winning season. “ The only way we have to change is to work, to work very hard, together with the players, the club and the fans. It won’t be easy to cancel a bad season like last season,” he said.
With the majority of media attention centering around the Portuguese manager’s return to Stamford Bridge, Conte has urged his players to focus solely on the game rather than Mourinho, when they take on United on Sunday. Pointing out that he deserves a good reception for all his contributions to the club, Conte also remarked that Mourinho will become the “enemy” as soon as referee Martin Atkinson blows for kick-off.
“It’s important because we have a very tough game against a strong team like Manchester United, not against Jose Mourinho,” said the Blues boss. “When a manager comes back who did a lot of positive things for the club it’s right he gets a good reception, but then when the whistle goes he becomes like the other players of Manchester United. An enemy. But from a sporting aspect.”
Finally, Conte also aimed an indirect swipe towards his opposite number on Sunday claiming that he would never set up his side to stifle for a draw, putting the onus on putting in a good performance for the fans whenever a team goes out on the pitch. He said: “It’s important to win, but for me also it’s important to win in the right way. I don’t like playing for a draw, that’s not my type of football and I don’t want it.”
Chelsea currently sit fifth in the Premier League table with 16 points from 8 games, three behind leaders Manchester City and two clear of Manchester United. And as the Red Devils come visiting to the Bridge, Conte would be hoping his side can win a third game on the trot and stretch United’s winless run in the league.