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Eden Hazard fired Chelsea into the FA Cup final as the Belgian’s blistering strike ensured Antonio Conte’s selection gamble paid off in his side’s dramatic 4-2 win over Tottenham on Saturday.
Blues boss Conte sprang a major surprise by starting with Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench in the Wembley semi-final as he looked ahead to the Premier League leaders’ vital fixture against Southampton on Tuesday.
But Conte’s bold moves proved inspired as Hazard’s replacement Willian put Chelsea ahead early on and then restored their lead in the second half after Harry Kane’s equaliser.
Dele Alli levelled again for Tottenham, but Conte had all the answers and, when he sent on Hazard, the Belgian blasted Chelsea back into the lead.
Nemanja Matic’s thunderous long-range effort sealed a final date against Arsenal or Manchester City, who meet in the second semi-final on Sunday.
Having seen their lead at the top of the league cut to four points by second placed Tottenham last weekend and looking vulnerable following a limp defeat at Manchester United, this should be a huge psychological boost for Conte’s men.
They rode their luck at times but showed a decisive killer instinct while their London rivals came up short in crunch time.
Tottenham, losers yet again at Wembley and still without an FA Cup final appearance since 1991, need an immediate response in their midweek trip to Crystal Palace if they are to get revenge by pipping Chelsea to the title.
Conte’s decision to pick Willian and Michy Batshuayi instead of Hazard and Costa triggered a round of second guessing, but it took just five minutes for the former Juventus coach to be vindicated.
Breaking at pace, Chelsea worked the ball towards Batshuayi and his deft backheel sent Pedro surging clear.
When the Spaniard was sent sprawling by Toby Alderweireld’s lunge, Chelsea were hoping for a more severe punishment than the yellow card shown by referee Martin Atkinson.
But their frustration was short-lived as Willian stepped up to exact retribution from the free-kick, the Brazilian’s superb 20-yard strike eluding Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris before nestling into the far corner.
Kane has been the spearhead of Tottenham’s impressive run this season and the England striker’s typically predatory finish drew them level in the 18th minute.
But, despite controlling possession for long periods, Pochettino’s side still ended the half behind as his decision to play Son Heung-Min out of position at left wingback was exposed in the 43rd minute.
Kante slipped a pass to Victor Moses and when the Nigerian’s surge into the penalty area was halted by Son’s rash tackle Atkinson gave the penalty on the advice of his linesman.
Batshuayi wanted to take it, but Conte demanded Willian step up and he stroked home the spot-kick in confident style.
It could have been a major momentum changer, yet Tottenham were level again in the 52nd minute.
Barely looking up as he received the ball, Eriksen unfurled a majestic pass towards Alli, who timed his run perfectly to slide in front of Luiz and direct a close-range finish past Courtois.
Conte responded by sending for the cavalry as Costa and Hazard came on for Willian and Batshuayi in the 61st minute, while Cesc Fabregas was introduced soon after.
Once again, Conte’s instincts were spot on and the Italian’s changes brought the winner in the 75th minute.
Fabregas’s corner was only partially cleared and Hazard seized the ball just inside the area before drilling a blistering finish beyond Lloris.
If that was a memorable strike, there was even better to come five minutes later when Hazard teed up Matic and Serb’s thunderous 30-yard rocket sent Chelsea into raptures.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho masterminded a brilliant and unexpected 2-0 home victory over former club Chelsea on Sunday to breathe new life into the Premier League title race.
Mourinho gambled by resting Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera’s goals gave United a win that leaves Chelsea just four points above Tottenham Hotspur with six games to play.
Victory at Old Trafford also lifted United to within four points of fourth-place Manchester City, on whom they have a game in hand, ahead of the derby at the Etihad Stadium on April 27.
It was a personal triumph for Mourinho, who saw his side thrashed 4-0 at Chelsea in October and was branded “Judas” by fans of his old club during last month’s FA Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge.
A wet, cold Manchester afternoon was the setting for United to end a run of 12 games without victory against Chelsea, stretching back to a 3-2 away win in October 2012.
Chelsea have now lost twice in four games, having gone down 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace earlier this month, which will give in-form Spurs fresh hope that the Blues may yet collapse as the finishing line nears.
The top two meet at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals next weekend in what now looks a significant test of Chelsea’s mettle.
United, meanwhile, will approach Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final second leg at home to Anderlecht, which is poised at 1-1, on the back of their best display under Mourinho.
Chelsea were without goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois due to an ankle problem, while Marcos Alonso succumbed to a virus, bringing Asmir Begovic and Kurt Zouma into their usual first XI.
Mourinho set United up to stop Chelsea, with Herrera and Matteo Darmian tasked with the responsibility of tracking dangermen Eden Hazard and Pedro wherever they went.
But despite Herrera’s chief role as a stifler, he created United’s seventh-minute opener, albeit in contentious circumstances.
He seemed to block Nemanja Matic’s pass with his right hand, but referee Robert Madley played on, enabling Herrera to split the Chelsea defence with a sublime through ball for Rashford.
The 19-year-old raced in behind David Luiz before clipping a shot past Begovic for his ninth goal of the season.
Costa became embroiled in penalty-box tangles with United centre-backs Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo and was booked for a late challenge on Paul Pogba.
With the willing Jesse Lingard in support of Rashford, United looked far more lively going forward.
Ashley Young twice spurned presentable shooting opportunities from the edge of the box, while Rashford saw a cross headed onto the roof of the net by Gary Cahill.
Short of a 25-yard drive by Costa that flashed wide in stoppage time, the half-time whistle sounded without Chelsea having offered anything in attack.
Any hopes the visitors had of masterminding a turnaround vanished within four minutes of kick-off in the second half as Herrera doubled United’s lead.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte sent on Cesc Fabregas for Victor Moses, with Pedro moving to wing-back, but still the league leaders toiled, Pedro twice curling shots over De Gea’s bar.
At the other end Rashford remained a constant menace, teeing up Lingard to bend a shot over and twice going close himself, ruffling the side-netting and testing Begovic at his near post.
When he departed in the 82nd minute, with Ibrahimovic taking his place, he was accorded a richly deserved standing ovation.
Antonio Conte has warned his Chelsea stars not to worry about Tottenham’s results as the Premier League title race hots up this weekend.
With just eight games remaining Chelsea are clinging to a precious seven-point lead over second-placed Tottenham, but the Blues are showing a few glimpses of vulnerability.
Conte’s side ground out a barely deserved 2-1 win over Manchester City on Wednesday just days after crashing to a shock 2-1 home defeat against struggling Crystal Palace.
Meanwhile, Tottenham have reeled off five successive victories, including an incredible escape act at Swansea on Wednesday when they scored three times in the final minutes to clinch a 3-1 success.
With Chelsea playing on Saturday evening at Bournemouth, Tottenham have the chance to turn up the pressure again by temporarily trimming the lead to four points with a win against Watford at White Hart Lane a few hours earlier.
But Conte is adamant his players must forget about Tottenham’s form because Chelsea have their fate in their own hands.
“This race is open. I think now I can see two teams, Chelsea and Tottenham, in this race,” Conte said.
“There’s always pressure. If they win, if they lose, if they draw. It’s the same.
“It’s very important for us to look at ourselves and not the others. Tottenham’s result is important, but our results are the most important things.”
The Premier League era is littered with epic collapses from teams who thought the title was theirs and, with Chelsea needing 18 points to be certain of top spot, Blues midfielder Cesc Fabregas isn’t getting carried away yet.
“We’ve been saying it since the beginning of the season: it’s one game at a time,” he said.
“We have to worry about ourselves, not what the others are doing. As long as we keep winning then we don’t have to worry.”
Tottenham’s title hopes looked over until Dele Alli equalised in the 88th minute before Son Heung-Min and Christian Eriksen struck in stoppage time to kill off Swansea.
The wild celebrations from boss Mauricio Pochettino, his coaching staff and Tottenham’s players and fans underlined their relief at a result that allows them to continue dreaming of a first English title since 1961.
Having choked last season when they failed to catch champions Leicester in the closing weeks, Pochettino’s side are back in the hunt and Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen said: “Chelsea look very strong but we can’t stop pushing and dreaming of the league.
“They have a couple of difficult games coming up. We have to keep winning and hopefully they get a bit stressed.
“I don’t know what is necessary to win the league, maybe a bit of luck, but I think this group has massive quality and is very special.”
The battle for Champions League qualification via the top four seems certain to go down to the wire.
Third-placed Liverpool, six points above fifth-placed Arsenal, can’t afford another slip when they face Stoke after allowing Bournemouth a late equaliser in a midweek 2-2 draw.
Reds boss Jurgen Klopp urged his team to emulate Chelsea’s steely streak when points are on the line.
“Probably if it was Chelsea, for example, the opponent would not have the ball three times in the last 20 minutes, I think. We don’t have this experience,” Klopp said.
Fourth-placed Manchester City, who host Hull, are without a win in four games and sit only four points above Arsenal, who have a game in hand and travel to Crystal Palace on Monday.
Manchester United are sixth and head to bottom-of-the-table Sunderland aiming to add to their former manager David Moyes’s problems.
Home draws against West Bromwich Albion and Everton have damaged United’s chances of making the top four and a win at the Stadium of Light is essential.
Jose Mourinho’s side can also push Sunderland — a hefty 10 points from safety — closer to the Championship at the end of a week in which Moyes was forced to apologise after threating to “slap” a female reporter.
Chelsea will aim to resume their steady march towards the Premier League title after an international break in which the focus was on the future of Eden Hazard.
The 26-year-old Belgian star sat out Chelsea’s last game at Stoke City as well as Belgium’s fixtures during the recess with a calf problem but should return for the visit of Crystal Palace to Stamford Bridge.
The forward, though, has still found himself the centre of attention following reports this week he is a target for Real Madrid.
Hazard has been one of the main factors in Chelsea’s dominance of the Premier League table this season -– Antonio Conte’s side face Palace sitting ten points clear, with ten games remaining –- after rediscovering the form he showed in the 2015 title triumph.
Chelsea are determined to hold on to the player but the interest from Spain has provided an unwanted distraction as Conte attempts to maintain his team’s concentration during the run-in.
But the head coach’s efforts won’t have been helped by comments made this week by former Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon who insisted Hazard’s future will be decided by the player himself.
Calderon told talkSPORT radio station: “Chelsea aren’t a selling club, so it wouldn’t be easy, but as always it would depend on the wishes of the player. If he wants to leave, he will leave — that’s always the point.”
There has been no indication Hazard wants to leave and Conte will expect the player’s response against a much-improved Palace to underline his commitment to remaining at Stamford Bridge.
The return of striker Diego Costa, who missed Spain’s meeting with France because of ankle injury, will also help Conte’s side pick up from where they left off before the break.
The victory at Stoke was secured by a late goal from Gary Cahill that came as a blow to second-placed Tottenham who have been hoping to capitalise on any slips made by Conte’s side.
With an FA Cup semi-final meeting with Tottenham also looming at the end of April, Conte remains on course for a league and cup double in his first season in English football after leaving the post of Italy coach last summer.
A few weeks ago, the visit of Palace would have been viewed as a routine three points for the Blues.
However, they have shown significant signs of improvement recently with manager Sam Allardyce confident he has plugged the defensive holes that contributed to the team’s fall into the bottom three.
Four victories in the last six games -– each secured on the back of a clean sheet -– have moved Allardyce’s side four points and two places clear of the relegation zone.
New signings Mamadou Sakho and Luka Milivojevic have been credited with adding steel to the side.
Wilfried Zaha’s form has helped reignite the debate about the winger’s decision to reject England, despite winning two caps in friendly internationals, and commit himself to Ivory Coast.
Speaking after last Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, England coach Gareth Southgate appeared to suggest Zaha had imposed a timescale for his selection by England.
However, the comments drew a strong response in a statement that came through the player’s agent
Will Salthouse said: “Wilfried did not impose a timescale or set a date by which he had to be selected by England, there was no ‘disappearing egg timer’. The ‘private’ meeting with Mr Southgate was very amicable.
“It was Wilfried’s personal choice and it was his right as a senior player to accept the opportunity to represent his nation of birth and that of his family heritage.
“His ‘desire’ or ‘passion’ should never have been publicly questioned for making that decision.”
Antonio Conte slammed Manchester United’s cynical attempts to intimidate Chelsea in his side’s bitter FA Cup quarter-final win, but Jose Mourinho hit back at his rival by insisting he remains the Blues’ best ever manager.
Chelsea boss Conte was furious with United’s aggressive approach after Ander Herrera was sent off for two fouls on Eden Hazard in Monday’s 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.
Marcos Rojo escaped a red card for a spiteful stamp on Hazard late in the second half at Stamford Bridge, but the United defender is likely to face a ban if the Football Association retrospectively look at the offence.
Conte was so wound up by the constant fouling he became embroiled in a touchline row with United boss Mourinho that ended with the rivals being separated by the fourth official.
Asked what he made of United’s tactics, Conte said: “My players want to play football, but for 25 minutes it was impossible.
“I think only that Eden got a lot of kicks. I don’t think I’m crazy.
“He started the match receiving kicks and he finished it receiving kicks.
“This is the truth and I don’t think one person can say this didn’t happen. It’s not football for me.
“It could be United’s tactic. Sometimes when you play against players with great talent you try to intimidate them.
“The referee must try to protect these type of players because they can go out with a bad injury.”
It was a chastening return to west London for former Chelsea boss Mourinho, who endured his old club’s fans calling him “Judas” and chanting “you’re not special anymore”.
Mourinho responded to the jibes by holding up three fingers to the crowd to remind them how many Premier League titles he won in his two spells with Chelsea.
And, determined to have the last word, Mourinho, sacked by the Blues last season, took the opportunity to remind Conte and Chelsea’s supporters that they have a long way to go to match his achievements at the Bridge.
“They can call me what they want. I’m a professional,” he said.
“I feel responsibilities on Chelsea’s bad Premier League last season, but when I left we were in the Champions League, winning the Champions League group.
“Now they don’t play in Europe. It’s not my fault.
“Until the moment they have a manager that wins four Premier Leagues, I am number one.
“If a manager wins four I become number two. Until then, Judas is number one.”
Although Conte and Mourinho didn’t shake hands at full-time, the Italian insisted he had done nothing wrong in their touchline clash.
“It was hard work for the fourth official but I controlled my emotion very well today,” Conte said.
“It’s normal for the manager to push his players. What happens outside the pitch is just a circus.”
Conte saluted Hazard for refusing to be intimidated by United’s bullying as N’Golo Kante’s superb second-half winner gave the Premier League leaders a Wembley semi-final showdown with London rivals Tottenham next month.
“For sure, he showed strong character. After the first 25 minutes, every player would have a fear of being kicked. It’s very dangerous to receive a kick from the back,” he said.
Inevitably, Mourinho refused to accept blame for his team’s approach and turned the focus on referee Michael Oliver’s decision to send off Herrera for what was one of the less vicious tackles on Hazard.
“Herrera’s second yellow card, compare that with (Marcus) Rashford going to attack the ball in a counter-attacking situation. He was fouled and the referee doesn’t give a booking,” Mourinho said.
“We all saw the game. We can all agree there was one match until Herrera saw the red card and another after that.
“I thought we were going to win because everything was under control, then with 10 men it was very difficult for us.”
Chelsea’s Antonio Conte and his Manchester City counterpart Pep Guardiola are among the Premier League managers who will sample England’s Boxing Day football extravaganza for the first time on Monday.
While the rest of the population gorged on Christmas turkey dinners and knocked back festive drinks, 16 teams were gearing up for matches as part of a custom that stretches back over 150 years.
With Chelsea six points clear at the summit and chasing a 12th consecutive win, which would set a new club record, Conte is approaching the visit of Bournemouth with a spring in his step.
“This is the first experience for me and my family, to work, to play football (at this time of year),” said the Italian.
“It can be, and I hope it will be, a fantastic experience. The atmosphere we find in this period is very difficult to find in another period. It’s fantastic.”
Chelsea have registered 11 consecutive wins within the same season for the first time after winning 1-0 at Crystal Palace last weekend.
Another victory will leave them one win from equalling Arsenal’s 2002 record for successive wins in the same campaign, which they extended to 14 the following season.
But Conte will be without both top scorer Diego Costa and midfield lynchpin N’Golo Kante after they picked up suspension-incurring bookings at Palace.
Guardiola, too, is full of festive cheer following his side’s 2-1 comeback win over Arsenal last weekend, which left City seven points below Chelsea in third place.
While the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach appreciates the novelty of Christmas football, he is preparing for his side’s match at bottom club Hull City by pretending it is a regular fixture.
“This is my first year here and people say that at Christmas you have to be focused, because at home you celebrate with dinner and lunch, and we have to be prepared,” said Guardiola, whose side trained as usual on Sunday.
Arsenal slipped to fourth, nine points off the pace, after their loss at the Etihad Stadium, which followed hot on the heels of a 2-1 defeat at Everton.
Arsene Wenger’s side welcome West Bromwich Albion to the Emirates Stadium on Boxing Day and centre-back Gabriel says his side cannot afford to be distracted by seasonal excitement.
“I think all players just want to be focused on the game, rather than celebrating,” the Brazilian told the Arsenal website.
“If I do have some time, I’ll organise a dinner with my friends to make the most of the short time off. Then, I have to be ready and focused again.”
Jose Mourinho has long been an avowed admirer of England’s Boxing Day traditions and with his Manchester United team chasing a fourth straight win, he is relishing the prospect of Sunderland’s visit.
“I love it!” Mourinho told MUTV. “I know that the family miss something from us, but the family loves us.
“They know us, they know our nature, they know that we are happy playing football, giving all of the people that love football something really special in a period when almost no country has football for the fans.”
Sunderland manager David Moyes will return to Old Trafford for the first time since he was sacked by United in April 2014.
Champions Leicester City will hope to give their supporters some Christmas cheer when they host Everton in a repeat of the fixture that preceded last season’s title coronation.
Top of the table last Christmas, Claudio Ranieri’s men are three points above the relegation zone after winning just once in eight games.
Two points back in 17th place, Palace begin life under new manager Sam Allardyce — appointed as the successor to Alan Pardew — with a trip to Watford.
“I’ve upset the missus again because we were supposed to be going to Dubai, so that tells you I’m right,” said ex-England manager Allardyce after shelving his holiday plans to ride to the rescue at Palace.
“We should have been going for New Year but she’s as always supported me in taking this job.”
Liverpool, second, host Stoke City on Tuesday, with fifth-place Tottenham Hotspur visiting Southampton the following day.
Antonio Conte claimed Chelsea can still improve, despite recording his best win as manager of the club so far, describing his side’s 5-0 thrashing of Everton as “fantastico”.
The Italian had been pressed to offer a word from his own language for the display and, having chuckled about the one he picked, then spoke seriously about how the true value of this victory is how it instils confidence in the system and his ongoing work with the squad.
“You have to show that you can win with the idea of playing good football. It’s important to put these players in the best situation to exploit their talent,” said Conte as Chelsea moved to the top of the table.
“I’m very pleased because today there was a fantastic atmosphere with our supporters. We must continue to work together with the players, the club, the supporters and then to improve step by step. We can improve. We can improve.”
It is difficult to see how Eden Hazard can improve, having put in one of his finest displays for Chelsea.
He scored twice, opening the scoring after 18 minutes, before driving home the best strike of the game on 54 minutes after a brilliant exchange of flicks with Pedro.
That makes it seven goals in 11, his finest start to a season since moving to Stamford Bridge.
“He’s playing fantastic football,” Conte enthused. “He’s showing his talent with all the Chelsea players. But the most important thing is that I’m seeing that Eden is fantastic with the ball and he is fantastic without the ball.”
Marcos Alonso hit the second to claim his first goal for the club, with Diego Costa then hitting the third, before Pedro completed the scoring.
Everton didn’t have a chance and, having switched from his own attempt to play a three-man defence as early as the 36th minute, coach Ronald Koeman praised how the Italian ha made that formation work.
“I never saw a team playing so well this system,” the Everton manager said.
“This system is very difficult to play against, the movement of the players.
“Chelsea showed us today a very high level of football – in every aspect of football. I did not expect that big a difference on the pitch, but it happened.
“I think after playing out of this system, five wins in a row, they (Chelsea) score a lot, they don’t concede any goal, it’s enough for them. It’s the best way for them, and of course some key players in that team are showing the highest level of football.”
“How they work, how they run, how they press – we can learn from them.”
Despite the rout, Conte was still reluctant to talk of title challenges.
“We don’t want to send a message to the other teams. It’s important to send a message to ourselves,” he said.
Antonio Conte insists he has no reason to fear for his future at Chelsea after bookmakers suspended betting on the Italian being sacked.
Conte has only been in charge at Stamford Bridge since July, but he had to answer questions about his job security on Friday following heavy betting on his imminent dismissal 24 hours earlier.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is notorious for acting quickly when he feels a manager is underachieving and last season he sacked Jose Mourinho eight months after his team won the Premier League.
But, although Chelsea have endured some difficult moments in the early stages of Conte’s reign, including consecutive lacklustre defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, it would be a bizarre move to axe the Italian after only nine games.
Chelsea have made it clear they have no intention of wielding the axe and Conte was relaxed when quizzed ahead of Saturday’s Premier League clash with champions Leicester.
“I take this with a smile. I’m trying to find who bet the money!” Conte told reporters at Chelsea’s training ground.
“I have good communication and a good relationship with the club.
“It’s very difficult to talk about this situation. I’m focused about my work. I’m focused to improve the team. “
After spending the majority of his managerial career with Italian clubs, whose owners are famous for hiring and firing with remarkable regularity, Conte isn’t fazed by his first taste of England’s version of the sack race.
“The pressure is the same. It’s normal to be under pressure, also for the players,” he said.
“When you are in a club you want to win and do good work. The pressure is part of our job. It’s the same in other countries.
“We are working very hard to change the situation of the past, the whole of the last season.
“We are trying to bring something important for the present and the future.”
While he remains confident about his future with Chelsea, after failing his first two big tests against Liverpool and Arsenal, Conte can ill-afford to finish the next two matches without positive results.
Home games against Leicester and Manchester United will provide further evidence of how far Chelsea have come under Conte, who said: “These are two big challenges.
“Leicester won the title last season and are playing a good Champions League.
“Then with Manchester United they are another great team, but in this moment we must think about ourselves and not the other team.”
Conte’s major problem so far has been a shaky defence that had leaked goals at an alarming rate.
The former Juventus coach responded by switching to a formation with three central defenders and the result was a 2-0 win at Hull in their last game before the international break.
Conte will stick with that formation against Leicester, but he has to decide whether to keep faith with David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta or recall captain John Terry after he recovered from an ankle injury
“Yes, John is available, he came back for training in the middle of the week and did all the sessions,” Conte said.
“It was necessary to find a solution because it is not right for a great team like Chelsea to concede so many goals in those games.
“Now I have four central defenders and one must go on the bench.”
Conte also needs to get the best out of Eden Hazard, the mecurial Belgium midfielder who this week expressed a desire to be used by Chelsea in the number 10 role he enjoys with his country.
Showing no signs of bowing to Hazard’s wishes, Conte said: “Now we are finding the best solution for the players and their talent.
“In the last game against Hull we played a good game. Hazard and Costa played very well and did what I want. Now we must continue this way.”
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte paid tribute to Diego Costa as the revitalised Spain forward took his season’s tally to six goals in seven games in a much-needed 2-0 win at Hull.
Costa did not reach the half-dozen goal mark until the first week of January last season, but the temperamental star looks back to his best under Chelsea’s new Italian coach.
His attacking partnership with Willian and Eden Hazard proved unstoppable for slumping Hull as the former opened the scoring before Costa wrapped up all three points on Saturday.
“It’s fantastic for him, for us,” said Conte, whose side got back on track after defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal.
“He has scored six goals but I think Diego has the opportunity every game to score goals.
“It’s important he scored a goal but it’s important he’s working for the team. For me, this is the most important thing — together with Willian, together with Hazard.
“I’m pleased with the performance because we played with the right intensity and good pressure.
“After two defeats, it’s never easy, but I’m pleased with the attitude and commitment of the players. We’re working hard and I think that’s the right way.
“We must follow this way because we must know that we have to improve a lot and if we want to improve there is only one way — that is to work.”
Conte dropped Branislav Ivanovic and switched to a three-man central defensive line-up in a bid to return to winning ways after collecting one point from the last three games.
It was the first time Ivanovic had been left out of a Chelsea line-up since the Andre Villas-Boas era, although Conte insisted he had no hesitation in making the switch.
“I try to choose the best for the team,” he said. “Because I want to win, the fans want to win and I have different options in this situation. I think that is normal.
“And it’s important that the players must be involved in the project — all the players together because together we win, together we lose. It’s important to work together and trust in the work.”
The new formation certainly had the desired effect as Chelsea recorded just their second clean sheet of the season and its continued use, after the coming international break, seems likely.
“We were able to defend very high and this is very important,” said Conte. “The team was very compact and when we lost the ball, we tried to win it back very soon.
“All the players worked very well. When we work together, it’s easy.”
Hull, having played Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal in their previous four games, can look forward to a kinder fixture list on the horizon, although caretaker manager Mike Phelan remains unclear about his own position.
“My future will take care of itself but there is no panic,” he said.
“I’m not in a position of worrying too much about it. The talks I’ve had have been extremely good but, once people sleep on things, they tend to change overnight.
“It’s just a case of I wasn’t particularly happy with the uncertainty of the deal. But moving on, we’ll have another coffee and cake, like we did last week, and discuss it.”
Chelsea swept to the top of the Premier League with a 3-0 victory over Burnley, while Arsenal won 3-1 at Watford to ease the pressure on Arsene Wenger on Saturday.
After a dismal title defence last season, Chelsea look revitalised under new manager Antonio Conte and the Italian was able to celebrate his third successive win after the most emphatic display of his brief reign.
So disappointing last term, Eden Hazard has made a vibrant start to the new campaign and the Belgium midfielder put Chelsea ahead with a superb run and clinical finish from the edge of the penalty area in the ninth minute at Stamford Bridge.
Willian was back for Chelsea after recovering from a calf injury and the Brazil winger doubled their lead in the 41st minute before Nigeria’s Victor Moses came off the bench to net the hosts’ third in the 89th minute.
“It was a good performance. We have started very well this season but we must know we can improve,” Conte said.
“Eden Hazard must be this decisive in every game and I’m pleased because I saw it today.”
At Vicarage Road, Arsenal’s first victory of the season, after losing to Liverpool and drawing with Leicester, should silence Wenger’s critics at least temporarily.
Failing to win their first two matches while struggling to make an impact in the transfer market had prompted some Arsenal fans to turn on Wenger again after many protested against him last season.
But there were no complaints as Arsenal took the lead in the ninth minute when Santi Cazorla stroked home a penalty after Nordin Amrabat elbowed Alexis Sanchez.
Chile forward Sanchez increased Arsenal’s advantage five minutes before half-time with a deft touch over Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.
Mesut Ozil was making his first start of the season after being rested following Euro 2016 and Arsenal’s German playmaker made up for lost time with a headed goal in first-half stoppage time.
Watford’s Roberto Pereyra reduced the deficit in the 57th minute, but the Hornets remain winless.
“I believe we shot ourselves in the foot in the first game and were under huge pressure,” Wenger said.
“Today we had a good solid performance but at the moment we are not completely there physically and you could see that in second half.”
Claudio Ranieri’s side took the lead in the 32nd minute when Jamie Vardy finished off a typically efficient counter-attack from the champions and captain Wes Morgan lashed in the second in the 52nd minute.
Riyad Mahrez wasted a chance to make it three when the winger’s penalty was saved by Lukasz Fabianski and there was more frustration for Leicester when goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel came off injured.
But Leroy Fer’s 80th-minute goal for Swansea came too late to rescue a point for the visitors.
Danny Rose’s 72nd-minute equaliser earned Tottenham Hotspur a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at White Hart Lane.
James Milner gave Liverpool a deserved lead with a penalty in the 43rd minute after Roberto Firmino went down under the slightest contact by Erik Lamela.
But a sustained spell of second-half pressure climaxed when the unmarked Rose drilled home to preserve Tottenham’s unbeaten record.
“It’s not easy when you play a team that are perfect on the counter-attack and you need to take risks. The draw is a fair result,” Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino said.
Everton climbed to second place with a 1-0 win against Stoke City at Goodison Park.
Ronald Koeman’s team enjoyed a stroke of luck in the 51st minute when Leighton Baines’ penalty — awarded for a foul on Ashley Williams — was pushed onto a post by Shay Given, only for the ball to rebound off the Stoke goalkeeper’s head into the net for an own goal.
Southampton rescued a dramatic 1-1 draw against Sunderland as Jay Rodriguez’s 85th-minute strike crept past goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to cancel out Jermain Defoe’s 80th-minute penalty at St Mary’s.
Scott Dann’s late leveller gave Crystal Palace a 1-1 draw against fellow strugglers Bournemouth at Selhurst Park.
Josh King fired Bournemouth in an 11th-minute lead before former Liverpool striker Christian Benteke won a penalty on his Palace debut.
Artur Boruc saved Yohan Cabaye’s spot-kick, but Palace defender Dann spared his team-mate’s blushes with an equaliser three minutes into second-half stoppage time.
Antonio Conte won the battle of two old Serie A adversaries as Chelsea came from behind to beat Walter Mazzarri’s Watford 2-1 on Saturday thanks to Diego Costa’s latest last-gasp winner.
Etienne Capoue put Watford ahead after 55 minutes with his second goal of the season, but Michy Batshuayi equalised in the 80th minute with his first goal for Chelsea, six minutes after coming off the bench, thanks to an error by Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.
And Spain striker Costa won it with three minutes to go at Vicarage Road after a fine pass from another substitute, Cesc Fabregas.
If Fabregas had a point to make after failing to make Conte’s starting line-up for either of the first two matches, then he may consider it made, having also played a part in Batshuayi’s equaliser.
Conte and Mazzarri, who had a frosty relationship when they managed Juventus and Napoli respectively in Italy, are animated performers in the technical area and not even some unseasonal rain put them off as they both spent most of the match on their feet.
But Conte won the battle in the end, even if a draw might have been a fairer result on the balance of play.
Watford paraded new signings Roberto Pereyra, a £13 million ($17 million, 15 million euros) capture from Juventus, and Isaac Success before the match.
They and Younes Kaboul, who joined on Friday from Sunderland, may reflect that their extra quality might convert results such as this into better outcomes for their new team.
Jose Holebas had the first serious shot at goal after seven minutes, advancing from his left wing-back position to meet a diagonal pass with a low angled half-volley that goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had to block with his feet.
And the other wing-back, Nordin Amrabat, bullied his way past Cesar Azpilicueta and curved in a dangerous cross that Odion Ighalo, sliding in along the rain-slicked turf, could only hit over the bar.
Amrabat then half-volleyed a decent chance high and wide after Chelsea had half-cleared a cross from the left.
And the Dutch-born Moroccan international was a central player again as Watford took the lead 10 minutes into the second half.
Amrabat’s pass found Adlene Guedioura and his cross from the right swung behind forwards and defenders alike but reached Capoue beyond the far post.
He had time to chest the ball down and strike a fierce left-foot half-volley high past the right hand of Courtois.
The French midfielder had not scored for Watford since joining the club in July 2015 until he found the net at Southampton last week.
Chelsea tried to react but Costa, already on a booking, fooled nobody, including referee Jon Moss, when he appeared to dive after a challenge by Miguel Britos in an unsuccessful bid to win a foul.
Conte sent on Spain midfielder Fabregas in an attempt to bring some accuracy to his team’s passing, and it worked.
He found Eden Hazard and his shot was fumbled by Gomes to Batshuayi, who could not miss from six yards.
Then, in the 87th minute, Fabregas’ diagonal pass sent Costa racing clear to slip the ball under Gomes for his second late winner in a week following Monday’s decisive strike against West Ham United.
Batshuayi could even have made it 3-1 but his shot from 12 yards came back off the crossbar.
A superbly-executed strategy by coach Antonio Conte helped Italy to a deserved 2-0 win over Belgium in their Euro 2016 opener with outstanding goals by Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle on Monday.
At their vintage best defensively, and threatening on the counter-attack, Italy extended their unbeaten competitive run against the Belgians to 44 years having last lost to them in a 1972 European Championship playoff.
“The result shows that nothing in football can be taken for granted and we did our talking on the pitch,” a delighted Conte told a news conference after the Group E clash against the world’s second-ranked team.
“I have been saying for a long time that this is a squad of men and good footballers. In this competition it’s only right to have this alchemy and I was overjoyed with how everyone got involved, including players on the bench.”
“It shows a great team spirit.”
Although tactically outfoxed, Conte’s opposite number Marc Wilmots — fielding the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku — defended his talented but disjointed side, which again flattered to deceive on the big stage.
“We lost a battle but we haven’t lost the war and it’s the qualification for the next round that counts,” Wilmots told Belgium’s RTBF television.
“We did a lot that was good but if you don’t make it count, you can’t win the game.”
Monday’s win put former European champions Italy on top of the section, with Sweden and Ireland having earlier shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw, while a Belgium side dripping with talent now have plenty of work ahead to reach the last 16.
Conte’s bold 3-5-2 formation worked to perfection in the first half, with wing-backs Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva proving a handful when on the attack and solid defensively.
Usually deployed on the right behind Candreva, Darmian was pushed further upfield on the left and the switch, plus the duo’s tireless running, gave Italy’s midfield room to operate.
Seemingly on the back foot as a toothless Belgium had more possession, Italy always looked more likely to score and they took the lead against the run of play after a sublime move.
Centre back Leonardo Bonucci delivered an inch-perfect pass down the middle from the halfway line and livewire Giaccherini side-footed past Courtois after taking the ball in his stride.
Clearly rattled, the Belgians were lucky not to fall further behind a few minutes later when Pelle headed just wide after a fine save by Courtois who palmed away a stinging Candreva shot.
For all his hard work in the first half, Belgium captain Hazard could not start and finish everything as he received little support in feeding lone striker Lukaku.
Both sides raised the tempo after the break and spiced up a cracking atmosphere in Lyon’s glittering new stadium with some fast-paced football.
Belgium came out with more purpose and Lukaku missed a gilt-edged chance in the 53rd minute, curling his shot narrowly over the bar past advancing Italy keeper Gianluigi Buffon after good work by the hard-working De Bruyne.
Pelle forced a fine one-handed save from Courtois at full stretch barely 30 seconds later at the other end after yet another darting run and cross by Candreva.
With Belgium throwing men forward in the closing stages, Courtois again prevented a second Italian goal when he kept out a rasping shot by substitute Ciro Immobile.
But he was powerless in stoppage time when another sweeping move saw Candreva cross to Pelle who volleyed home and was mobbed as the entire Italy bench who rushed on to the pitch.
Italy coach Antonio Conte hinted that Andrea Pirlo’s international future may be over on Monday after omitting the midfielder from his latest squad.
Italy, who qualified for Euro 2016 after finishing top of Group H with 24 points from 10 matches, face Belgium and Romania in friendlies matches on Friday and Tuesday.
They will have to cope without New York City FC’s Pirlo.
“Not calling up Pirlo was to be expected,” Conte told a news conference on Monday. “Because he has not been playing for over two weeks because of the end of the (Major League Soccer) season.
“He is a player who I hold in high esteem, and he knows this, but I must be cold in my analysis.
“Andrea will be 37 and we will have to see. The start of the season in the U.S. will be in March, I will have to make my evaluation and consider the possibility that I can’t take him to the European Championship.”
Pirlo last represented Italy in their 1-0 victory over Malta in a Euro 2016 Group H qualifier on Sept. 3, but he was dropped to the bench for the win over Bulgaria three days later.
The 36-year-old midfielder was named in Conte’s squad for the double-header against Azerbaijan and Norway in October, but withdrew from the squad with an adductor injury.
He returned to Major League Soccer action on Oct. 25, playing the full match as New York City ended their season with a 3-1 home defeat by New England Revolution.
Conte urged Pirlo, who has made 116 appearances for Italy, to consider a move back to Serie A during the MLS off season.
“If Pirlo returns to Italy I would be very pleased,” Conte continued. “He could train properly and would still make an impact. My fear is that by staying away he could lose all that.”
Pirlo made his international debut in September 2002 and helped Italy win the World Cup in Germany two years later. He was influential as Italy reached the final of Euro 2012 but could not prevent the Azzurri falling to a 4-0 defeat by Spain.
Italy face an injury crisis after midfielders Marco Verratti and Danielle De Rossi were ruled out of their Euro 2016 qualifier away to Croatia on Friday.
With defenders Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini also on the sidelines, Italy coach Antonio Conte will have to field a makeshift side for the Group H clash in the Adriatic resort of Split to be played behind closed doors after Croatia were given a one-match crowd ban.
Conte, who is likely to field an adventurous 4-3-3 formation after Verratti dropped out with a calf injury while De Rossi picked up a knock in practice, banked on the good form of evergreen 36-year old playmaker Andrea Pirlo.
“He has the passion and enthusiasm of a boy,” Conte told a news conference in Split after Italy’s final training session on Thursday.
“I don’t think Pirlo will leave football just yet because he still has a lot to give and I hope he will be around for some time to come.
“If he gets tired tomorrow, I could shift (Claudio) Marchisio into his position but we will see how it goes.”
Croatia coach Niko Kovac welcomed the return to full fitness of towering striker Mario Mandzukic as the hosts will miss injured playmaker Luka Modric and suspended defender Vedran Corluka.
“Team doctors have told me that Mandzukic is ready and although both teams will miss some important players, there is still plenty of quality at either end to produce a good match,” he said.
“It’s a specific situation because we will be deprived of home support and I hereby appeal on Croatian fans to leave out in future anything not related to the beautiful game.
“This was designated to be a spectacular event for a capacity 40,000 home crowd but at least we’ve had fantastic working conditions and a warm welcome here.”
Croatia top the group with 13 points from five games, two more than Italy and four ahead of third-placed Norway.
(Reuters) – Antonio Conte, who coached Juventus to three successive Italian league titles, has stunned Serie A by resigning two months after signing a deal for this season.
“I need to announce the decision to mutually terminate my contract with Juventus, which tied us together for this season,” Conte told the Juventus TV Channel. “There was a journey towards this decision.”
Conte, a former Juventus player for 13 years who took charge at the Turin club in 2011, wanted investment in the team in order to mount a serious challenge in the Champions League.
His Serie A champions finished 17 points ahead of second-placed AS Roma as they became the first team to break the 100-points barrier.
The best Conte could muster in Europe, however, was an appearance in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2013, when Juve were brushed aside 4-0 on aggregate by eventual winners Bayern Munich.
Last season they crashed out at the group stage before losing their Europa League semi-final with Benfica 2-1 on aggregate.
“You were a great leader for our lads and this news leaves me enormously sad,” Juventus CEO Andrea Agnelli said on the club website (www.juventus.com).
“I think of the three years we spent together, three years that allowed us to write history with this club: three consecutive league titles, two Italian Super Cups, but above all exponential growth.”
Conte’s contract with Juve was set to end next June, but at the end of last season he refused to commit his future to the club, where he made more than 500 appearances in 13 years as a player.
Throughout last season he spoke about how a lack of resources was hampering Juve’s potential to take on the best on the continent and after winning the title, he said he was “tired”.
Conte refused to comment on his future amid media reports that he is considering putting himself forward for the Italy manager’s job after Cesare Prandelli resigned following a disappointing World Cup.
“For now I’m thinking about the present, about the decision I’ve just made,” added Conte. “I’ll think about my future tomorrow.”
Conte had a huge impact on Juventus. They finished seventh in Serie A in 2011, 24 points behind champions AC Milan with the club still reeling from the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal that saw them relegated to Serie B and cost them two league titles.
In his first season, Juve saw off Milan and won the league going unbeaten in the process, and in the following two years the gap between his side and the rest of Serie A grew bigger.
Not even Conte’s four-month touchline ban at the start of the 2012-13 season for match-fixing offences relating to his time at Siena could stop his side cruising to a second league title in as many years.
Juventus were unstoppable last season, winning every single home game and losing only twice.
Conte’s departure will increase speculation around the futures of midfielders Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal, who have both been transfer targets for Manchester United.
“It was an unexpected decision, a bolt from the blue,” said Juve captain Gianluigi Buffon at a news conference organised for Carrarese, a club the Italy goalkeeper holds shares in.
“Juventus lose a great deal, it’s pointless denying what our coach truly brings to the team and how much of the credit he deserves for the last three years.
“Probably it is something that matured over time and had been brewing for a while.
“I don’t know why he decided to leave, as I haven’t spoken to him. (But) when you reach decisions like this, the only reason can be you no longer want to continue this type of work.”