Chelsea’s season turned when Antonio Conte turned to Marcos Alonso
■ West Bromwich Albion v Chelsea, Friday, 11pm UAE, BeIN Sports
The eventual, factual verdict may be that the 2016/17 Premier League title was won at The Hawthorns on May 12. Certainly it will be if the impatient Antonio Conte gets his wish.
“I prefer to try to win as soon as possible,” he said when asked if he would rather seal it at Stamford Bridge on Monday.
All those who witnessed the Italian’s manic celebrations at Goodison Park 12 days ago may feel it was secured by Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Everton.
In a strange way, however, it was decided during what seemed an awful afternoon. “At the start of the season, it wasn’t easy,” Conte recalled. “We faced a lot of problems.”
But the darkest day was not before the dawn; it was the dawn. Chelsea were 3-0 down at Arsenal in September when, with 35 minutes remaining, Conte removed Cesc Fabregas, introduced Marcos Alonso and switched to 3-4-2-1.
It seemed a minor plotline as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil unlocked a Chelsea side who appeared on course for a second successive season of high-profile underachievement.
■ Premier League Predictions: Chelsea will wrap up title against West Brom
But it proved the season’s defining moment. Conte stuck with the new-look formation. His charges made it work. “Thanks to my players because it’s not easy to adapt to new methods, a new philosophy, and also to work very hard,” said the Italian.
“My big achievement was the players gave me the ability to work hard on physical and tactical aspects.”
They are winning the title on the training ground and football field alike.
Alonso came into the starting XI at Hull City, six days after the Arsenal defeat. The Spaniard has started 28 league games since then. Chelsea have won 24, taking 74 points.
He has contributed six goals and three assists from left wingback, his most recent strike against Middlesbrough on Monday helping set up tonight’s possible coronation.
Others could be anointed the face of Chelsea’s season. Perhaps N’Golo Kante, the only man to play pivotal parts in consecutive Premier League title-winning campaigns with different clubs and the deserving winner of the season’s individual awards.
Maybe Eden Hazard, rebounding brilliantly after his wretched season last term to once again deliver some of the crucial contributions in the run-in. Possibly the emblematic David Luiz, the ridiculed addition turned defensive stalwart.
Arguably, the inimitable Diego Costa managed sufficiently astutely by Conte that he has continued to deliver while potentially exiting.
Yet Alonso symbolises the improbable nature of Chelsea’s triumph. He was initially overlooked, a late, seemingly panic buy as a back-up. This was not Conte’s ideal spending spree and yet it is a sign of the Italian’s alchemy that he forged a golden side from such unprepossessing materials.
Alonso was part of the five-man defence who underpinned that initial improvement, conceding only two goals in 12 games. He has spent 2017 illustrating his attacking abilities. He has contributed five goals in his last 14 league outings.
He is an indication of the overachievement of a Chelsea team who are perhaps not any more talented than many of their peers, but who have proved more consistent. That consistency that should bring its reward tonight. Chelsea have only dropped seven points against the teams outside the top seven.
West Bromwich Albion have often been the best of the rest, but beat them and Chelsea’s status as the top team cannot be questioned.
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Updated: May 11, 2017 04:00 AM