A goalless draw at Goodison Park was in stark contrast to the last time Conte's men visited in April during their match to the title.
Chelsea lack the cutting edge that made them champions as Everton hold out for hard-earned point
The location was the same, the emotions different. Frustration replaced elation. Eight months earlier, Chelsea had celebrated at Goodison Park, an ebullient, energised Antonio Conte’s reaction a sign that realistically, if not yet mathematically, they had become champions. The Italian was altogether more subdued on his return. So too, his team.
As in April, they were held by a defensively determined Everton side for the opening hour. Then they showed the ruthless streak of winners by adding three goals.
The rematch offered no such dramatic denouement, nor any opportunities for any joyous outpourings of emotion. The chorus came from a corner of Goodison Park “Champions Chelsea.”
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So they are but, as Conte has already admitted, they will not be this season. This offered evidence why. A hard-earned point for Everton was a hard-luck story for Chelsea.
“Maybe Jordan Pickford was the best player for them,” Conte said after the goalkeeper’s compendium of saves included two excellent ones to deny Pedro and another pair to thwart Eden Hazard. “His growth is miraculously quick for a goalkeeper,” Sam Allardyce added.
Conte also rued Everton’s defiance, symbolised when Phil Jagielka made twin goal-line clearances in the space of seconds to prevent Tiemoue Bakayoko and Willian from making an early breakthrough. “Phil Jagielka decided he was not going to let them score today,” Allardyce said. “That’s not luck.”
Conte disagreed and deemed Chelsea unfortunate. Ashley Williams, who had cleared off the line from Marcos Alonso, certainly appeared lucky when he deflected Victor Moses’ cross on to his own bar. The visitors had the opportunities to secure a ninth win in 11 league games.
“We dominated the game,” Conte said. “We had 26 shots, only eight on target. For sure we are disappointed.” But for all their pressure, there was a certain inevitability to the eventual stalemate.
Not merely because it appeared what Allardyce wanted on a day when Everton recorded no shots on target and just 32 per cent of possession. An unambitious blueprint was pursued unapologetically.
“We scrapped it out, battled it out and fought it out,” Allardyce said. “Defensively I can’t knock the team in terms of effort, commitment and organisation.”
And Chelsea offered perspiration but insufficient inspiration. “We must be more clinical,” Conte said. They also lacked the class and creativity they exhibited on their previous visit to Goodison Park.
It scarcely helped that they were deprived of the suspended Alvaro Morata, banned after being booked for celebrating his Wednesday winner against Bournemouth, and often at his sharpest in away games.
“Our striker was out,” Conte said. He is reluctant to use the alternative. Michy Batshuayi, granted three league starts in 18 months, was confined to a 20-minute cameo. He was only even the second substitute used, with Cesc Fabregas Plan B, on another dispiriting day.
“We played with three No 10s - Willian, Pedro and Hazard,” Conte said. “We played many times in this way.” It has often been a productive ploy but Everton defended deep, looked to crowd out Chelsea’s front three and Hazard retreated further from goal in a game that cried out for a penalty-box poacher.
Conte argued Chelsea played with “great personality and intensity” but theirs was a sterile brand of domination. His midfield was largely workmanlike and his most attack-minded wing-back, Moses, was strangely removed for the more defensive Davide Zappacosta.
They did not pose enough problems to a defence that was reshuffled twice - once when Allardyce brought in a new centre-back partnership – Keane and Jagielka excelled on their recalls – and again at half-time when the Welshman came on in a switch to a back three.
Illness had robbed Everton of their top scorer, Wayne Rooney, and Allardyce admitted: “It is disappointing that we did not really threaten their goal apart from Michael Keane's header at the end.”
Instead, the defender’s effort flew over the Chelsea bar when he had the chance to increase Chelsea’s frustration.