Antonio Conte revelled in the strength of his bond with Chelsea‘s supporters after they showed their backing for the under-pressure manager during the 3-0 defeat of West Brom.
Speculation persists that the Italian has no future at Stamford Bridge, despite him inspiring his team to last season’s Premier League title and their latest victory taking them back into the top four.
Two goals from Eden Hazard and Victor Moses’ second-half finish secured all three points amid an improved performance that followed successive, damaging defeats by Bournemouth and Watford that increased the uncertainty surrounding Conte’s position.
In addition to taking Chelsea above rivals Tottenham and into fourth, their convincing display will also have encouraged their manager given they resume their Champions League campaign against Barcelona next week.
The three goals were followed by chants of support from the club’s fans for Conte, and the 48-year-old said: “I have to thank the fans. They showed me great support because they are reading speculation and rumours about me. I’m grateful to the fans for supporting me in this way.
“It means that, maybe in our 18 months together, they understand my passion and my will to defend these colours, this shirt, this badge.
“To feel this atmosphere around me is very important. It’s very important to feel that people appreciate my work here in Chelsea. For me it’s important.
“I repeat – me and the players are trying to do our best to give them the best satisfaction. Sometimes we can do this, sometimes not, but the will is always present.
“For our confidence, it was very important to get three points, to win and keep another clean sheet. Now we have to prepare another game in the FA Cup (on Friday at home to Hull).
“We want to go into the next round and then prepare for the Barcelona game, then (Manchester’s) United and City. Three massive games, three important games for us.”
Conte also handed new signing Olivier Giroud his full debut, but despite him suffering a head injury he expects the French striker to be fit to face Hull.
The boss said: “We must be pleased for Giroud’s performance. He needs to improve, to go into our idea of football, but to have a point of reference like Olivier is very important.”
Defeat means West Brom remain bottom of the Premier League, seven points adrift of safety and five shy of 19th-placed Stoke with only 11 games to play.
The fact they are increasingly likely to be relegated was worsened by the loss of Daniel Sturridge to a hamstring injury in only the fourth minute.
Manager Alan Pardew said: “We’ve got to hope Daniel’s injury isn’t too bad.
“He was distraught. The way he’s worked at our place has been of the highest order. He’s absolutely devastated because he wants this period to be a success.”
The Baggies are to heading to Spain for some warm-weather training, and Pardew added: “Some sun on our backs; a bit of resolve. The only people who are going to believe we can (survive) is ourselves. A bit of that, a bit of team building and a lot of hard work as well.”
Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles did not mince his words after beating Manchester United, claiming most of Jose Mourinho‘s players “went missing” and that their defence “didn’t really know what to do”.
Rafael Benitez oversaw a memorable, and much-needed, victory on Sunday afternoon as the relegation-threatened Magpies fought hard for a 1-0 victory.
Matt Ritchie struck the decisive blow after the visitors failed to deal with a free-kick into the box on an afternoon when Mourinho’s Reds failed to match Newcastle’s hunger and intensity.
St James’ Park roared their side to victory and skipper Lascelles shot from the hip when it came to the second-placed visitors.
“They have got some great players, but I don’t think United turned up,” the defender said.
“We have played against Arsenal and Man City and you can really see the quality and one mistake or a lack of concentration and a goal will go in.
“I don’t think they were at it from the start of the game – a lot of their players went missing.
“It was probably the way we were playing, we made them play like that.
“In the first-half they were making a lot of mistakes, passing the ball around but it was down to our pressing.
“We were aggressive, and they didn’t like it. You could see their centre-halves on the ball and they didn’t really know what to do with it.
“We set up really well and we matched up really well against them. The manager got it spot on.”
Matt Ritchie’s strike proved the difference on an afternoon when relegation-threatened Newcastle dug deep, stuck together and gave their all – a performance that second-placed Red Devils were no match for.
“Poor,” Jones said of his side’s display. “Poor. We started slow and sloppy. The crowd were on their feet, they got momentum.
“We gained a bit of momentum midway through the first half. Second half we had a few chances, cleared off the line but, you know, we’re not kidding ourselves. We were not good enough today.”
Jones conceded it “wasn’t about luck” in Sunday’s defeat given Mourinho’s side put in a meek, undercooked display that they can ill-afford to repeat.
“We started too slow and couldn’t get to the rhythm of our game,” the England international told MUTV.
“For whatever reason, we weren’t good enough today and we’ll have to play a lot better than that if we’re going to kick on and improve.
“You know, they didn’t (create a lot of chances) even when the crowd were on their feet and had a few half chances, (even though) the crowd think it’s sort of a one-on-one.
“We had a few chances ourselves, could have scored, but I think the result was probably fair. I don’t think we deserved to win the game today.”
While Jones spoke to broadcasters, the other Manchester United players skulked out of St James’ Park onto the team coach as Liverpool were beating Southampton.
Jurgen Klopp’s Reds are now third and within two points of Mourinho’s men, with just six points separating second from fifth – a gap that could shrink further on Monday evening.
“A lot of teams around us keep drawing, losing points and there is a lot still to play for,” Jones said when asked about the top four given leaders Manchester City now boast a surely insurmountable 16-point cushion.
“It was a disappointing day, but we have to go again. That’s all we can do, that’s all we know. We’re disappointed, we’re devastated, but we have to improve.”
The visitors’ post-match emotions understandably contrasted starkly with Newcastle’s after a victory to cherish.
It was a particularly special afternoon for goalkeeper Martin Dubravka – the imposing January loan signing from Sparta Prague, who produced a man-of-the-match display on his debut.
“I feel amazing, we won and that is the most important thing,” the Newcastle shot-stopper said.
“But also it was my first game and my debut, so I am very happy that we won. I only knew two hours before the game that I would play.
“The coach told me what the line-up was going to be, and I tried to stay calm and focus on the game. Knowing I was playing was an amazing feeling.
“To know you will play in a competitive game with a big club was great. We have to realise this is a big club and we have to fight for things. I am so happy that I won on my debut.”