The sense of relief the moment Eden Hazard’s rasping left-footed drive found the back of Ben Foster’s net was palpable. There was no coming back for West Bromwich Albion, Chelsea had wrapped up a much-needed victory.
The lack of culpability was staggering. Stories emerged in the press that the players were unhappy with Antonio Conte. The Italian, meanwhile, made it perfectly clear he wasn’t enamoured with the squad at his disposal.
It had the hallmarks of a great Chelsea storm. Several have passed over Stamford Bridge during the Roman Abramovich era, with many a head coach claimed along the way.
But instead of battening down the hatches, diligently getting on with his work and waiting for the worst to pass, Conte did the opposite.
“The club can take a different decision,” he said after the 4-1 defeat at Watford. “But I’m not worried. Tomorrow is another day. I can be the Chelsea coach or not. Which is the problem? My soul is clear.
“I go to sleep without a problem that maybe, maybe, I could do this or that. I try to do everything. If it’s not good, the club can make a different decision. Life goes on.”
Unlike many of the Chelsea managers that have come before him, Conte clearly has no issue with being sacked. He knows he will get work elsewhere, his achievements with the Blues and Juventus guarantee as much.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the Italian from becoming his own PR manager in recent weeks. Every press conference has seen Conte promote himself or criticise the club for Chelsea’s struggles this season.
His comments prior to the win at West Brom, however, really stood out.
“I reached the best results possible with the players I have to work with,” Conte said. “I’m the type of coach who if I have a player who is 6/10, I bring him to an 8/10. If I have an 8/10, I take him to 10/10. I’m this type of coach.
“My task is to try to improve every single player, in every aspect. My task is this and, for this, I’m very good. But I think I’m a bit of a disaster to convince the club to buy players. I think in this aspect I can improve a lot.
“I have to learn a lot from the other coaches, the other managers, in that aspect. I have to speak more with the managers who are very, very good at persuading their clubs to spend money to buy top players. One way might be to stop improving the players I have…”
They are unedifying, self-serving comments and a far cry from the Conte Chelsea fans fell in love with last season. During the 2016/17 campaign the 48-year-old was charming, cheeky and his passion endeared him to the fans instantly.
This term, despite signing a new contract making him one of the best paid managers in Europe in the summer, Conte has cut a constantly moody figure. He’s complained as much as he’s coached and baited the club’s hierarchy on far too many occasions.
With 11 games to play in the Premier League, an FA Cup fifth round tie on Friday and a Champions League last-16 tie with Barcelona next week, it’s time for Conte to focus on what he claims to enjoy most, his work.
The Blues need the Italian fully focused in order to navigate their way through the rest of the season. The petty squabbles he’s engaged in should be put to one side for the benefit of the club.
Does he have the same squad depth as Manchester United and Manchester City? No. Does he have a world class striker like Tottenham Hotspur? No. Did his club spend £60million in January like Arsenal? No.
But Conte remains an excellent tactician and has shocked superior opposition in the past, such as his weak Italy side knocking out Spain at Euro 2016.
It would be unwise to back against the 48-year-old steering Chelsea into the top four and beyond Barcelona in the Champions League. But he can only do so if fully focused and fully committed.
If he’s irked players in his squad – and it wouldn’t be surprising given he’s claimed he didn’t want many of them and that they’re six out of tens – then he needs to get them back onside.
Giorgio Chiellini, who worked with him at Juventus and with Italy, this week said: “He [Conte] is like a police sergeant. When you finish training, you are dead. Not tired — dead. You can do it only because you believe in what he does.”
If Chelsea players have lost that belief, they won’t succeed. It’s why Conte has to play good cop instead of passive aggressive drill sergeant until May.
Do that and achieve the Blues’ objectives, then an end of season parting will be graciously accepted. Conte can leave with his head held high, his character unquestioned and with the knowledge he rode out one of those difficult Chelsea storms.