LONDON — As the sun beat down on west London on the final day of the season, Chelsea hoisted the Premier League trophy into the air amid euphoria.
Increased expectations were also in the air.
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Chelsea had become the first team in Premier League history to win 30 games in a season as Antonio Conte has put together a fluid, rigid machine capable of powering or finessing its way past opponents. There are very few weaknesses to this team and the 3-4-3 system has been a revelation for the champions.
“A lot of emotions today. It is great to finish the season this way, to celebrate a fantastic season,” Conte said. “We won the league with 30 wins and it is very positive for us. Someone could think that this season was easy but this season wasn’t easy. I think we overcame a lot of difficult steps but now for this reason we must be very proud to celebrate with our fans, our family, to have this day together.”
Now, greater challenges lie ahead and even amidst celebrations many were thinking ahead to the FA Cup final at Wembley next Saturday against Saturday.
Conte knows the fans want more silverware, as the supporters who have celebrated 14 major titles since Roman Abramovich arrived expect success.
“Now we have another chance to celebrate this season with a final in the FA Cup,” Conte said. “We all know that this game will be very tough but a great day, a fantastic day. Honestly, it was very difficult to imagine this finale in this season, to celebrate a win in the league but it happened. I think that it happened only because we worked very hard with our players.”
As a brass band fired up the Liquidator pregame outside Stamford Bridge, shirts with “Champions, 17” on the back and scarves, flags and hats littered the crowd. Chelsea have now won the title five times in the past 12 seasons, but this felt different.
There is a new expectant era dawning at Chelsea.
Chelsea’s fans were going to enjoy these celebrations, just like they did after the title-sealing win at West Brom 10 days ago, then the home game against Watford last week.
Leaning against a brick wall at Stamford Bridge with his sunglasses on his head, Chelsea fan Frank O’Brien is one of the many who want to see their team push on, especially after finishing 10th last season just 12 months after securing the PL crown.
Complacency is no longer tolerated at Chelsea.
“If you reflect on last season, it was a massive disappointment considering the season before. With a little bit of organization and bit more self-belief among the group they’ve achieved what they’ve achieved this season and hopefully they will kick on from here,” O’Brien said. “Champions League football next season, even better. I expect the club to purchase a few additional players and hopefully have a really good push for the Champions League.”
A huge poster adorned the back of the Chelsea hotel and retail village which sits behind The Shed End at Stamford Bridge. It simply read “Thank You – Grazie!” and had a photo of John Terry and Antonio Conte hugging.
The subplot to this title celebration was Terry’s final day at Stamford Bridge.
Terry, 36, played in his final game for Chelsea to end his 22-year career with the Blues. Fans wore John Terry’s name and number on their shirts, lauded him after the game and he said an emotional farewell to supporters at the final whistle.
Coming off in the 26th minute to a guard of honor from his teammates, Terry got a fitting farewell as he set PL record for winning five titles as captain and he has won 15 major titles with the only club he’s ever known.
He will always remain a legend of Chelsea and whatever he does next, nothing can taint the bond he has with the Chelsea faithful. He stayed long after any other player to shake hands, sign autographs and hug Chelsea’s fans with his son by his side.
Terry didn’t want this day to end, and neither did Conte who was the last person on the pitch as he carried the trophy down the tunnel and into the dressing room.
Conte’s Chelsea career has only just begun but the fact that he is there, right alongside Terry, on the giant mural (see above) shows how highly he is already regarded.
Chelsea’s fans are delighted with Conte winning a PL title, and potentially an FA Cup, in his first season in charge. But now they’ve tasted success again, they want more.
“When you get consistency with a manager, as well as he’s done this season the challenge for him next season is to push on again,” O’Brien said. “Anything less than winning the Champions League and the Premier League is a disappointment. That’s the way it is in football but I sincerely believe the club will kick on from here.”
As he sipped champagne with the media at Stamford Bridge, Conte already had his mind on the FA Cup final next week. He says Arsenal are the favorites after they missed out on finishing in the top four.
“If you ask me ‘who is the favorite now?’ I can tell you it is Arsenal. Because Arsenal now only has this possibility to find a good season after a win in the FA Cup. For this season we must play great attention. We must find in ourselves the right motivation and the right anger because the game it will be very difficult for all of these reasons. After Arsenal missed the Champions League, we must have or antenna very high and to prepare in the right way. I’m not talking about tactics, I’m talking about motivation in our souls, our hearts. If we have this in the same proportion with Arsenal or more, we have the possibility to win and do the double. Otherwise we risk a lot.”
Conte is always playing mind games and always keeping his squad hunger to achieve. That’s exactly what Chelsea’s trophy hungry fans want to hear.
As Terry hoisted the PL trophy aloft, the jubilation was clear among Chelsea’s fans.
It’s also clear that the expectation levels have risen to their previous lofty heights at Chelsea and now Conte must keep delivering success.
“This is the real danger for us, to think that the season is finished,” Conte said. “If you win or lose, it doesn’t change the situation. We must think as a winner and not as a loser. It is important to celebrate today, enjoy this moment with our families and fans. To celebrate this title but from tomorrow, I am the first to try to push a lot to explain that this season will be great because if we didn’t win the title it would be good. After we win the title it became great. I think this season can become fantastic if we are able to win the FA Cup.
“We must find the right motivation because at this level with Chelsea and Arsenal, the level is the same and in the league we lost a game 3-0 and we won the game 3-1. It is a great target but it is important for us to celebrate but then to find the right fire in our soul to be ready to work very hard this week and prepare and feel in the right way this game. I think for me, the players, the fans, the club, this is a great opportunity to do the double.”
Conte is a Premier League champion but, like everyone else connected with Chelsea, he wants more.