If a gritty 1-0 FA Cup final win over Manchester United is to prove Antonio Conte’s Chelsea send-off then the Italian will depart Stamford Bridge with his reputation as a serial winner intact thanks to a brilliant Belgian.
The jubilant scenes of Chelsea lifting a fifth Premier League title in a memorable first season under Conte have seemed like a distant memory ever since a limp opening-day defeat to Burnley. That 3-2 loss was the start of a growing, almost uneasy, sense of inevitability that the Italian maestro would call time on his stay in London after just two campaigns.
Conte’s digs have not been so much thinly veiled as a full-throttle assault on Chelsea’s hierarchy. There has been an all too apparent lack of belief in a squad that coasted to league glory to compete domestically and in European football.
The falling out and eventual sale of Diego Costa, a short-tempered, chip-on-the-shoulder burden Conte felt not worth persisting with, left the Blues short of intensity, leadership and goals, his replacement Alvaro Morata unable to fill a sizeable void. The baffling decision to sell Nemanja Matic to Manchester United left Chelsea shy of top quality in midfield, the gamble on Tiemoue Bakayoko largely a failed one.
The writing was surely written on the wall after the final-day defeat to Newcastle United finally ended Chelsea’s chances of Champions League football next season, hopes that, in all honesty, had faded some time ago – late slips from Tottenham and Liverpool merely extending the inevitable.
But, for one glorious afternoon at Wembley, the old fire burned strong. The defensive solidarity, the willingness to run through brick walls, and the us-against-the-world mentality was in full force – perhaps inspired by the desire to get one over a familiar and fierce foe in the form of Jose Mourinho.
And the shining light to emerge from the darkness of what remains an underwhelming season was the jewel in Chelsea’s crown: Eden Hazard.
The Belgium star’s belief that a lack of selfishness will cost him the chance to ever win the Ballon d’Or was offset by the kind of performance that once again proved he is among world football’s elite.
Hazard has been the epitome of Chelsea’s season; flashes of sheer brilliance mixed with too many moments of indifference.
But on the big stage at Wembley, Hazard’s star shone brightest to ensure that a forgettable season ended with a trophy.
It was the type of performance that will have had Belgium fans purring at the possibility that World Cup success for a ‘Golden Generation’ can come to fruition.
At times in the first half, the diminutive forward was unplayable. The rapid footwork that already left Phil Jones dancing drew the foul in which the England defender crudely challenged his nemesis. A trademark, cool-as-you-like penalty followed to ultimately win the game.
The second half saw a slight drop as United inevitably forced the issue in search of an equaliser.
A little help from Hazard’s Belgium team-mate Thibaut Courtois was needed. The goalkeeper will rightly receive plaudits for a commanding performance completely at odds with the nervy, error-ridden display that cost Chelsea so dearly in their Champions League last-16 tie against Barcelona at Camp Nou, but Hazard remained the main protagonist and he departed to a rousing reception as the clock wound down. The headlines were deservedly his.
Conte needed to look no further than the opposition bench to know that an FA Cup win is not enough to appease big-spending Premier League owners desperate to line their deep pockets with the vast sums on offer in the Champions League. Louis van Gaal’s last act as United boss was to win football’s oldest cup competition – his reward was to be sacked and replaced by Mourinho.
But Van Gaal departed with an uneasy relationship with a fanbase completely worn down by a turgid, unimaginative style of football. Conte – if indeed he does leave – will bid farewell still very much a popular figure with the Blues faithful.
Had Conte failed at Wembley his standing as one of football’s ‘super coaches’ would have faced intense scrutiny.
Victory means that his status as a formidable winner is still well and truly in place. Hazard made sure of it.