Gianluca Vialli, Claudio Ranieri, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto di Matteo and Antonio Conte. Chelsea adore Italians.
Roman Abramovich flitted with Barcelona imitation, but when that fell short, the Italian norm returned. Vialli was widely admired, Ranieri loved as the nicest man in the sport, Ancelotti brought dazzling football and a double, Di Matteo finally delivered that elusive Champions League and now Conte could produce a double of his own.
Chelsea have only won one double in their 112 year history. Ancelotti’s team in 2010 scored more goals than anyone has done in the Premier League era and entertained throughout as they teamed power with exceptional talent. Irrepressible at times, that team is one of the best in recent memory. It was a joy to watch as stalwarts Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard were accompanied by a magnificent Florent Malouda, graceful Nicolas Anelka and destructive Michael Ballack. They wrapped up their title with an 8-0 final day destruction of Wigan. Fitting.
Saturday evening brings Conte’s chance to emulate his journeyman compatriot in completing a debut season double. Conte’s would be all the more remarkable.
Chelsea finished 10th last season, they were abysmal despite being reigning champions and were a club in turmoil once again. Players were almost universally unrecognisable, controversy rumbled and they were once again being led by a caretaker manager. When Jose Mourinho joined Manchester United, Pep Guardiola joined Manchester City and Conte signed at Stamford Bridge, even a top four finish would have been deemed a stellar campaign.
Fans split over Mourinho’s departure, fans bickered over the role of the players in the sacking of their greatest ever manager. Everything looked bleak.
Then followed a summer transfer window dominated by the pursuit of Kalidou Koulibaly. Left-back was still an issue, and no one knew whether Eden Hazard and Diego Costa in particular would return to their dominant form of 2014/15. The window ended with Michy Batshuayi, Marcos Alonso, N’golo Kante and David Luiz arriving at Stamford Bridge.
Alonso suffered from the Premier League centric thinking that costs English football, Luiz’s harsh reputation went before him, Batshuayi’s price tag sat heavily on his shoulders and Kante’s brilliance at Leicester was yet to be truly accepted. Alonso, Luiz and Kante set about becoming crucial players in a Chelsea team that equalled the league’s consecutive wins record and notched 93 points. Batshuayi was a threat when called upon, but remained on the bench for the most part as Costa’s lack of injuries surprised us all.
Conte glued together a fractured squad, he showed tactical adaptability and reinvigorated careers. It should not be a surprise after a quick glance at his glorious CV, but the Italian picked up a club from the doldrums and charged to an emphatic title.
We may never know quite what happened at Chelsea in 2015/16. Conte, though, found a way to make sure it was a freak blip rather than a startling regression towards upper mid-table suffering. Chelsea could have gone the way of Liverpool and post-Ferguson Manchester United, it was down to Conte that they did not.
Their league dominance makes them clear favourites on Saturday. Fairly so, but it also takes the pressure off. Whatever happens under the arch, Chelsea have had a season far beyond the most optimistic of predictions.
Abramovich craved Chelsea recreating Guardiola’s Barcelona, but the Italian way has so often been the way for the Blues.