Antonio Conte has admitted that the sudden death of the Tottenham Under-23 coach and former England international defender Ugo Ehiogu will overshadow the build-up to Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham, the team with whom they are also vying for the Premier League title.
The Chelsea manager said he expected there to be “a strange atmosphere” as Ehiogu is remembered before kick-off at Wembley, and that the news has forced him to consider his own mortality. Ehiogu, at 44, was three years younger than the Italian. “It is a shock, for sure,” he said. “When this type of situation happens I am a 47-year-old, a former player, and a coach. You think – for sure, this could happen to me. You think about this, and you hope that this situation never happens to someone. But when it happens, you reflect a lot about life. And sometimes you think [you should] live the life more, and not sometimes be angry for stupid problems. Because you don’t know if the day after you’ll be here, or another place.”
Conte has also been dealing with the impact of two losses in the last four Chelsea games, in which time Spurs have trimmed their lead at the top of the Premier League table from a comfortable 10 points to a nervy four. Add to this an illness to Gary Cahill which will, at a crucial stage of the season, deny him the services of a defender who has been on the field for all but six minutes of the league campaign. “This situation is very clear for us,” he said. “We are in trouble.”
Cahill’s absence might have been considered an ideal opportunity to rehabilitate the club captain, John Terry, who has started three of Chelsea’s four FA Cup ties on their road to Wembley. Instead Conte revealed that he would put his trust in Nathan Aké, the 22-year-old Dutchman who is yet to make a league appearance since returning from a loan spell at Bournemouth in January.
“Aké has been showing me in all this period, always a great commitment. He worked very hard, his behaviour was fantastic,” Conte said. “And don’t forget that Aké was playing every game with Bournemouth, and he wanted to come and try to help us fight for the title. I think he’s a good player, he deserves this opportunity and I trust him. I have no problem to take this decision.”
Chelsea follow the semi-final with a league game at home to Southampton on Tuesday and a visit to Everton the following Sunday, an eight-day period that may come to define their season, and Conte hinted he may as a result be unable to field his strongest side at Wembley. “I think the FA Cup is a great competition. There is a great tradition in this competition and we want to respect this,” he said. “But I think also when there is a clash with a game you have to play in the league this situation is very clear for us, we are in trouble to face this situation. I have to take the best decision, to find the right balance.”
Rather than complain about the pressure, the injuries and the fixture congestion with which he is being forced to cope as the season reaches its decisive period, Conte said he and his players would be approaching it with relish. “We have to enjoy this moment, because this moment is great for everyone,” he said. “For me, in my first season, and for my players because they worked a lot to arrive at this point. I think we have to enjoy this moment, to help each other, and to live with joy because if we think of where we started this season, I think every one of us would have signed up to have the situation we face now.”
Conte dismissed Mauricio Pochettino’s suggestion that Chelsea’s gilded recent history and current league leadership make them heavy favourites for the game as an excuse. “They are top of the league and then there is the experienced players and the manager that they have,” the Spurs manager had said. “We are talking about a team that, in the last five years, has won European competitions, World Cups, and a manager who won the title in Italy. They’re more experienced.”
Conte, however, contended that his side are underdogs because he is still “building a foundation” as he approaches the conclusion to his first season in England. “I think that Tottenham must be considered at the top, because they are now a really great power in English football,” he said. “They have been working three years and I think it’s the right moment not to consider them underdogs and have this excuse. They are a great team and for the second year they are fighting for the title. Last year they missed this, this year they are trying again, and I think in the future they will fight every year for the title because they are full of strong players and they are building something important.”