Former Chelsea player Gianfranco Zola reckons that the incoming head coach as his old club, Antonio Conte, is one of the top managers in the game and is every bit as good as former Blues boss Jose Mourinho and the Manchester City manager-in-waiting Pep Guardiola.
46-year-old Conte is due to become Chelsea’s next permanent manager after he has led Italy to the 2016 European Championships in France this summer. The Blues have been looking for a new long-term manager since sacking self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ Mourinho last December, with Dutchman Guus Hiddink taking up the role on an interim basis since then.
Conte won the Serie A title with Juventus every season for the three years he was their manager between 2011 and 2014. That led Zola to tell the BBC World Service, “He’s done so well in Italy that he has to be considered the same level as Guardiola and Mourinho. He has not won as much internationally but he is a good coach with a strong personality. I’m sure he will bring a lot to Chelsea”.
The praise of his countryman from Zola comes after another former Chelsea striker, Chris Sutton, suggested that it was a poor appointment by the West London club. Sutton feels that Conte is too similar to Jose Mourinho, but Zola isn’t convinced that’s necessarily a bad thing. He said, “Antonio as a coach is very disciplined, he demands a lot from the side no matter who you are and also tactically he works a lot”.
In fact, the major stumbling block that Zola can foresee is nothing to do with the manager, but rather the fact that the Blues won’t be able to offer Champions League football next season. The reason that the club’s owner, Roman Abramovich, took the decision to sack Mourinho for the second time since he bought the club was that they had endured their worst start to a league campaign since the 1960s. It was such a poor start that the defending Premier League champions were languishing in 16th when Hiddink took over.
Despite the fact that the Blues have only lost one league game since Hiddink came in they will still be quite fortunate to finish in the top ten this year. Having been knocked out of the FA Cup by Everton and the Champions League by PSG, Zola thinks player recruitment could be an issue. He said, “There might be a problem bringing big players because playing in the Champions League is a big issue, but that actually could be an advantage because there won’t be as much pressure on him. He will do well with Chelsea, I am sure”.
With other big teams such as Liverpool and Manchester United almost certainly destined to miss out on the Champions League too, with less fashionable teams such as Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City likely to take their place, the lack of European football might not be the problem it would have been in previous years.