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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Antonio Conte: Chelsea manager clears up contract rumours and talks Morata replacing Costa

Italian led Chelsea to the Premier League title in his debut season but until recently his future was far from certain.

Antonio Conte is with his Chelsea squad in Asia as part of their pre-season training ahead of the new season. Wu Hong / EPA
Antonio Conte is with his Chelsea squad in Asia as part of their pre-season training ahead of the new season. Wu Hong / EPA

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has spoken candidly about the reasons for the delay in agreeing an improved contract with the Premier League champions, citing the "very tough" conditions of living without his family as a key factor.

Conte enjoyed a spectacular debut season in English football, turning around the fortunes of a club who the previous season had finished 10th in the Premier League to winning the title by seven points and reaching the FA Cup final.

The Italian was immediately offered an improved contract that, worryingly for Chelsea fans, went unsigned until last week as reports emerged of Conte becoming frustrated by the club's lack of movement in the transfer market, particularly relating to missing out on Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United.

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A flurry of activity, that included the signings of German defender Antonio Rudiger from Roma and French midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko from Monaco saw Conte put pen to paper on an improved contract, although there has been no extension on the two years remaining on his previous deal.

However, in an interview with the Daily Mail, Conte has said that it was resolving the issues surrounding his family life that were more pressing before he agreed to commit to a new contract.

"After a tough season, it’s very important always to look back, to see the season and then to understand very well. It was very important for me because it was my first season in England, a new country without my family, and it was important to understand my situation in all aspects," Conte said.

"For sure, I enjoyed the season in England and with Chelsea. But I must be honest, it was very tough for me and for my family. Sometimes when you win, you think that everything is easy, but it wasn’t to win and to have this type of season.

"Now I have decided with the club to continue our path. We found the right view about the future of this club. I repeat, we are a great club but we are in a moment where we can’t make a mistake because it’s very dangerous. We don’t have a lot of space to make mistakes. We need to improve and increase our squad to be something important for the present, and also for our future."

After a year without his family in London, Conte has now welcomed wife and daughter, who will begin school in September.

"To stay another season without the family would be very hard, very difficult," he said. "My daughter is at an age when it’s very important to see her grow, to stay every day with her. And also with my wife. They are coming. My family is very important. I think it will show my commitment to the club, to this project and to try — I repeat — to build something important."

After clarifying his future at Chelsea, Conte addressed the striker situation at the club that has seen Diego Costa head for the exit, Lukaku opt for United, and Chelsea eventually end up with Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid.

Costa, who led Chelsea's forward line last season with 20 goals as the London club won their second title in three years, has been told he is not part of Conte's plans. The Spain striker even showed off a text message exchange with his manager confirming as much.

"I want to tell one thing to clarify the situation," Conte said in reference to Costa. "In January, the situation was very clear for the club, the player, for Costa, for his agent, that when we arrived in June then it would be finished. It was very clear from January. I took this decision in January and I respected my decision.

"I didn’t take the decision in June or in May. I took the decision in January. I would be surprised if someone was surprised about my decision now."

Morata has arrived for a club record fee, reported to be worth as much £70 million (Dh334.1m), to fill the void left by Costa, and Conte has backed his new striker to excel for Chelsea.

"I wanted him when I was at Juventus before I left,’ Conte said. "In that period he was very young but now, with experience at Juventus and Real Madrid, he is ready to come to Chelsea and to play for us.

"He made a good step forward since three years ago; now he is one of the best strikers in Europe. He has great potential, he can improve a lot. Last season he didn’t play a lot of games but scored 20 goals [from 19 starts]. He is very young and has a lot of space and room to improve and I want to improve him a lot."