In the wake of February 6’s 4-1 humiliation at Watford, few thought the Italian would remain in situ to welcome the visit of Barcelona’s phalanx of superstars to Stamford Bridge for this blockbuster round-of-16 opener in the Champions League.
But in a show of faith, or a rare show of restraint, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich refused to pull the trigger. He will demand an instant return for this uncharacteristic patience.
Over to you, Antonio.
CONTE MUST SHOW HE CAN BE A EUROPEAN KING
A glowing reputation was in Conte’s possession when he disembarked on the King’s Road in summer 2016.
Limited Italy had delivered the best display of Euro 2016 when they dismantled Spain prior to their quarter-final exit, while the rejuvenation of his beloved Juventus had garnered three Serie A crowns and two Supercoppa Italianas.
This personal gravitas only blossomed in the months which followed. Conte’s exhibition of tactical mastery inspired a remarkable top-flight crown, at the first time of asking.
Note the glaring blind spot in this CV. A proper tilt at the Champions League – a tournament he lifted in his combative and unrelenting role in midfield for the Bianconeri during 1995/96 – had not been accomplished.
At Juve, you can forgive the quarter-final failure against eventual winners Bayern Munich in 2012/13. But dreams which froze in the tundra at Galatasaray a season later during the group stage still define the 48-year-old.
The omens now do not look great. Chelsea have won just four of their previous 12 meetings across all competitions ahead of this epic contest, while Barca remain firmly in control of La Liga despite a recent penchant for draws.
The Blues’ squad could also not be blamed for being distracted by the upcoming double header against the Manchester giants in the Premier League. This is before the second leg even comes into play.
Conte must engender clear minds about a game plan, reaffirming faith from last term’s true believers in his astonishingly effective 3-4-3 formation.
There can be no more missteps. All decisions taken present immediate consequence.
Final preparations at Cobham this afternoon! 💪 pic.twitter.com/JrRk8Te6dY— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) February 19, 2018
BLUES SHOULD GO BACK TO THE FUTURE WITH GIROUD
The formation should be set in stone. But the personnel is in flux.
Central to Conte’s dilemma is who to unleash at centre forward.
Summer buy Alvaro Morata’s talent cannot be doubted. Neither his critical goals in clutch wins versus United and Atletico Madrid.
Yet an eight-match barren run has been interspersed with the Spain star’s draining back complaint.
There was no belief in Michy Batshuayi throughout Morata’s previous October drought. Now, this is not the case.
France No9 Olivier Giroud has appeared emboldened since escaping the sidelines at Arsenal. He has put in a shift during all three outings to date, his endeavour being rewarded with a brace against League One-bound Hull City in the FA Cup.
A bombardment of lateral balls for Giroud would hark back to the days of Diego Costa and provide a sense of the unfamiliar to Barca.
Handing him a start is a call Conte must make.
The German champions appear to have received a favourable last-16 draw against opponents who are currently fourth in the Turkish Super Lig standings.
But Heynckes, speaking at his press conference before Tuesday’s first-leg tie at the Allianz Arena, said:
“Besiktas are a team that can play football and it’s no surprise they are here.
“They won all three of their away matches in the group stage.
“They won’t hide, they like to play attacking football – if you let them.
“Besiktas are packed with international experience.
“They’re well organised defensively and know how to counter well, they will look for their chances.”
💬 #Heynckes: “I’ve studied @BesiktasEnglish in detail. They’re a team with international experience and a great coach. He has his side playing some very good football.” #UCL #FCBBJK pic.twitter.com/q8kNMme2Qz
— FC Bayern English (@FCBayernEN) February 19, 2018
Bayern finished runners-up to Paris St Germain in their group, but they start as firm favourites to progress after beating Wolfsburg 2-1 on Saturday to register a 13th straight win across all competitions.
Heynckes rested James Rodriquez as Bayern maintained their 19-point Bundesliga lead, while regular starters Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich, Robert Lewandowski, David Alaba and Thomas Muller were all on the bench.
Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcantara returned from a three-month injury absence against Wolfsburg when substitute Lewandowski converted a last-minute penalty for his 27th goal of the season.
But Heynckes dismissed talk of rotation, saying: “I have no A or B team. We only have one Bayern team.
“Every player knows their position and understands each other, so I don’t think we have too many problems with rotation.
“There are far more benefits, because everyone feels important and stays fresh.
“It’s not easy, but I think the players are happy with how I have managed it so far.
“Now I hope my team puts on a top performance to lay the foundations for reaching the quarter-finals.”
— Beşiktaş JK English (@BesiktasEnglish) February 19, 2018
Besiktas became the first Turkish side to top their Champions League group, and overcame German outfit RB Leipzig both home and away in remaining unbeaten.
But main striker Cenk Tosun, who scored four of their 11 goals in qualifying, joined Everton in January and Besiktas come into the tie on the back of being held by lowly Konyaspor last Friday.
They can, though, count on the experience of former Real Madrid defender Pepe – who will be making his 95th Champions League appearance – his fellow Portuguese veteran Ricardo Quaresma and Dutch striker Ryan Babel.
“This will be a tough test for us, but we want to push them as much as possible,” Besiktas’ former Turkey coach Senol Gunes told uefa.com.
“We have very good players and I just want to see what they can do, their skills and their characters.
“If we pass the test it will be fantastic, of course.”
Confronted by a last-16 Champions League draw which could have yielded Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich, it’s fair to suggest that Manchester United were relieved to be paired with Sevilla.
And Jose Mourinho’s men certainly should be considered favourites for the tie, which gets underway with Wednesday’s first leg at the atmospheric Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
However, United cannot take anything for granted and their meeting with La Liga’s fifth-placed club might not prove to be as straightforward as it seems.
It has been a strange few months for the Andalusian club, who headed into the new campaign rocked by the departure of revered long-serving sporting director Monchi, whose manoeuvrings in the transfer market had kept the club competitive among the elite for more than a decade.
There was also a new manager as Eduardo Berizzo arrived from Celta Vigo to replace fellow Argentine Jorge Sampaoli, along with the tranche of new players which has become inevitable with each passing summer in Sevilla.
And perhaps unsurprisingly amid all that upheaval, Sevilla’s season so far has proven to be consistent only in its inconsistency.
How would you like to judge their campaign so far? On the one hand, you could conclude that United are set for a walk in the park by focusing on Sevilla’s embarrassing 5-3 home derby defeat to Real Betis, or the even more humiliating 5-0 thrashing at Real Madrid, when all the goals were scored in the first half.
Alternatively, though, you could point out how dangerous they can be by looking at their progression to the Copa del Rey final, helped along by a convincing 5-2 aggregate victory over Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals. Or there’s always, of course, their most famous game of the season when they roared back from three goals down to claim a dramatic 3-3 draw against Liverpool.
The strong sense that it’s impossible to know what to expect from Sevilla is enhanced by the fact that they are under new management again after Berizzo, who struggled to get the team playing in a convincing fashion, was controversially fired in December just a month after being diagnosed with cancer.
His replacement is Vincenzo Montella, who enjoyed a moderate amount of success with a series of clubs in his native Italy before heading overseas for the first time to take up the vacancy in southern Spain.
We’re less than two months into Montella’s reign so it’s too early to draw any meaningful conclusions, but he has so far failed to address their inconsistency – just when it looked like their season was finally getting on a roll, having knocked Atletico out of the cup, they showed all their bad old ways by suffering a 5-1 loss at Eibar a couple of weeks ago.
Montella has, however, shown greater consistency in his team selection, with two players in particular benefitting from his arrival: attacking midfielder Franco Vazquez and central enforcer Steven N’Zonzi.
Vazquez had been in and out of the team under Berizzo, but he has become a regular selection since the arrival of the new manager and started to show the form which made him such a hit upon his arrival at the start of last season, with his ability to get between the lines of the opposition defence and midfield proving a valuable asset.
N’Zonzi’s renaissance is even more dramatic. The former Stoke man was strongly tipped to leave the club in the January transfer window and didn’t play from mid-November until the end of the year, but he has been welcomed back into the fold by Montella and will play a key role against United.
Experienced Argentine international Ever Banega has also returned from injury to join Vazquez and N’Zonzi in a strong central core, and considering United’s well-documented problems in midfield that could be a key area for the home team to exploit.
But with Sevilla this season, you just never know.