Conte brings unity and intensity back to Chelsea
(Eden Hazard 47-pen, Diego Costa 89)
WEST HAM 1
(James Collins 77)
The faces were familiar, but the intensity was different.
Ten of Chelsea's starting 11 against West Ham yesterday morning (Singapore time) also started on the opening day for last season. The major difference was in the dugout.
That jumping, fist-pumping, wild-eyed Italian in an undertaker's suit brought a knife to a bun fight.
Antonio Conte has taken Jose Mourinho's empty shells and reloaded.
Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic and, most of all, Eden Hazard, look like imposing players again. Last season, they looked like imposters.
Divided under Mourinho, united under Conte, the Blues are standing together again.
Chelsea's evolution remains a considerable work in progress, but the hallmark of Conte's success with both Juventus and Italy at Euro 2016 has followed him to England.
His side's work-rate against West Ham was phenomenal.
Matic linked with impeccable newcomer N'Golo Kante to shield their ageing back four and deny the Hammers a shot on target until their goal.
Costa battled until the death, long enough to drill home an excellent winner, and Hazard was a revelation.
The Belgian smashed in Chelsea's opener from the spot and completed nine dribbles.
The dizzying images of the winger in full flight, spinning fullbacks and curling shots towards goal were uplifting. He wants to play again.
One game was enough to confirm a happy camp. The managerial mojo that deserted Mourinho at Chelsea hasn't left Conte.
Chelsea's commitment, structure and stranglehold on the contest were soon apparent, betraying those lengthy training drills that Conte is famous for.
Like Italy at Euro 2016, the coach has fashioned a formation that doesn't follow current trends - or even personal history - but one that addresses Chelsea's specific needs and weaknesses, i.e. a defence of pensionable age.
Matic and Kante rarely left their own half, effectively turning the home side into a back six.
At a stroke, the Hammers were nullified in central midfield.
Conte encouraged Cesar Azpilicueta and a resurrected Branislav Ivanovic to increase their attacking forays, but it's hard to see how either fullback could sustain such a punishing work schedule as the season progresses.
Defensive solidity is a necessary step in the right direction, but the swift counter-attacking at the other end often stalled against West Ham.
Cesc Fabregas, a natural quarterback, would seem the best candidate to link the lines, but Conte isn't convinced. Fabregas didn't feature and could yet leave the club.
Indeed, even Willian and Oscar, both tiring rapidly, gave way to Pedro Rodriguez and new striker Michy Batshuayi, as Conte threw out the 4-3-3 in favour of a 4-2-4, underscoring his tactical versatility.
After Chelsea's dramatic winner, Costa and Co ran to their jumping, screaming manager, epitomising the new sense of brotherhood among the Blues.
At a stroke, Conte has brought back a collective work ethic, improved the defensive structure and turned up the intensity.
The Blues are still a fair way from brilliant, but they've at least rediscovered their backbone.
“Cesc is Chelsea’s player and I’m happy with his attitude and behaviour during the training sessions... I have to take decisions to choose a starting 11.”
— Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, on leaving Cesc Fabregas on the bench in favour of Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante
“Nine times out of 10 you see that challenge and get one (a yellow card) — unfortunately this was the 10th time. But really I am only disappointed with the late goal.”
— West Ham manager Slaven Bilic, on Diego Costa who escaped a second yellow card for a late challenge on his goalkeeper Adrian, before going on to score the winner