Among the 41,332 people crammed into the Juventus Stadium in late February was one very interested observer. Roman Abramovich’s adviser Michael Emenalo was there, taking in the sight of two European heavyweights slugging it out on a cool Turin evening, watching as good a game of football as can have been played anywhere this season. It was the perfect endorsement for the Champions League, a competition, incidentally, in which, unless there is a wholly unlikely turn of events, Chelsea will not be participating next season.
Full of athleticism, skill and determination, it was also a match of enormous tactical prowess. Which, given that it was under the control of two of the finest managers on the continent should come as little surprise.
Standing on the edge of their technical areas throughout, Pep Guardiola and Massimiliano Allegri conducted the proceedings with a passion and involvement the fans of Manchester United, for instance, would love to see from the man in charge. Guardiola had the best of the early exchanges, his Bayern side pressing their opponents deep into their own half. But almost at the point of no return, trailing by two goals, Allegri’s Juventus appreciated that when your rivals’ sole defensive tactic is to attack, there is always room for manoeuvre. For the last 20 minutes Juventus hammered at Bayern’s faltering, injury-weakened, makeshift backline, inducing them to give away two goals which might well prove critical in the final analysis of this breathtaking tie.
To the disappointment of Chelsea followers, however, Emenalo was not there to cast his eye over either of the men in the dug out. Despite his club’s need of a new boss, their 12th in the Abramovich era, neither man is available. Guardiola is already spoken for by Manchester City, while Allegri appears to have decided he would rather stay in Turin. And given the bustling, thriving, pulsating condition of the team he has constructed that is hardly surprising.
Instead, the Chelsea man was in the city to speak with Antonio Conte, the Italy manager, and had joined him at the stadium for the game. Conte worked in Turin before taking on the national side, steering Juve to the Serie A title in each of the three seasons he was in charge. An enthusiast for the city, he owns a bar there with his brother (who also happens to be his agent). There, after Juve matches the pair can be found chewing the fat about the game with a select band of journalists, agents, former players and assorted footballing high rollers.
It is Conte’s voice that always commands the attention in such discussions. In a country that is not without its football experts, all of them convinced they know everything there is to know about the game, Conte is reckoned the shrewdest of all observers. Andrea Pirlo described him as the best manager he had ever worked with. Talk to any of those privileged enough to be invited to one of his bar-side, post-match seminars and they will speak in reverential tones about his tactical prowess.
Juventus' players throw their coach Antonio Conte in the air after winning the Serie A championship at the end of their match against Atalanta at the Juventus stadium in Turin May 5, 2014
Image credit: Reuters
Which is what Emenalo is hoping to buy into. The thing about Conte is that he is not remotely dogmatic in his approach. He is a flexible coach, a manager who believes a system should fit the players at his disposal rather than the other way round. He is said to have studied the current Chelsea squad and reckoned he needs only a couple of reinforcements to turn them back into contenders. One of them, presumably, will be Paul Pogba, who once again against Bayern demonstrated what a commanding player he has become and would be a signing to strengthen any team.
But we should not expect a massive splurge. Conte is not a big spender. At Juve the most he forked out for a player was £9.4 million for Arturo Vidal, the kind of outlay some modern managers would consider beneath their station even to consider.
And cheerfully for Chelsea there will be no complications in his signing, no massive pay off required to release him from the employ of another club. Conte – who has been national manager since taking over after a disappointing World Cup in Brazil – is out of contract with the Italian FA after the Euro finals in France this June and it emerged on Tuesday that he would not renew his deal. Which, given the frequency with which Chelsea change managers is quite an advantage. This guy will be coming on the cheap.
Juventus' Arturo Vidal (L) celebrates with his coach Antonio Conte after scoring against Torino during their Serie A soccer match at Olympic stadium in Turin April 28, 2013.
Image credit: Reuters
Of course, this is Chelsea so all the usual managerial caveats apply. Conte – whose English is said to be on a par with Gary Neville’s grasp of Spanish – will need to hit the ground running, quickly assimilating to a country in which he has never worked. Not that he will have much time to adapt. Employed as he will be by one of the most impatient owners in football, he will be expected not only to deliver trophies immediately but to do so in style.
But in the business of recruitment there can be no faulting Emenalo and his team. This is a proper football man they have hired; a clever, committed, ambitious manager of skill and experience, yet still with plenty of hunger. His appointment has come about after a careful and considered process. There has been nothing panicked or slapdash about it; from start to finish it has reeked of professionalism and intelligence.
And how other clubs might learn from the way in which Chelsea have gone about the search for a replacement for Jose Mourinho. Mentioning no names, Manchester United.