LONDON (Reuters) - When Chelsea announced last April that Italian Antonio Conte would become their manager they knew they had signed a winner.
Three titles in as many years with Juventus is hardly coincidence but even Roman Abramovich could not have expected the arrival to trigger such an instant change in fortune.
Conte is the club’s fifth and most charismatic Italian manager. If you asked for the defining image of their season it would surely be of the controller on the sidelines - fists clenched, mouth wide open, knees bent and body taut with emotion - joyously celebrating one of their 76 goals that sealed a sixth top-tier English title.
Conte galvanised a club still so traumatised by the painful departure of manager Jose Mourinho that they had forgotten their previous role as serial trophy gatherers under Abramovich.
Although this year’s champions will not match the 95 points accumulated by Mourinho’s 2004-05 title-winners, they need a point to beat the 87 achieved by the Mourinho mark II side of 2014-15, the last time Chelsea topped the Premier League.
As an achievement, however, Conte’s ranks as one of the finest of the Abramovich era because this title was so unexpected. Out of the blue, in fact.
When the season began, most critics assumed that the best team in Manchester would prove England’s finest and, by the end of September, little had happened to change that view.
Chelsea’s 3-0 loss at Arsenal left Conte’s side eight points adrift of the early leaders, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Defeat at The Emirates saw Conte pull off what many said was a masterstroke by switching to the 3-4-3 formation which laid the foundations for the title success.
But, amid all the talk of tactical tweaking, it is easy to forget how easy it is to get these experiments wrong.
A back three only works with hard-running midfielders, flying wing-backs and an error-free central defence. So Conte’s achievement was really to spot what was possible with the players he had.
The transformation was remarkable. Nemanja Matic, whose career had been floundering, was instantly revived as N‘golo Kante’s foil in midfield, outcast Victor Moses called up to take on new defensive duties as a wing back and multiple flapper David Luiz recast as Mr Dependable at the heart of the defence.
Their team mates believed they could make the system work, with player-of-the-season Kante doing the dirty work and Eden Hazard enjoying his freedom to roam and score vital goals as Chelsea embarked on a 13-game winning streak that transformed them into title winners.
When Conte was asked to take the tough decisions he did so, with apparent firmness and fairness. So Branislav Ivanovic, who had become a symbol of Chelsea’s decline, was sold and club stalwart John Terry forced to sit on the sidelines.
Even Diego Costa, whose 20 goals turbo-charged the title push, was confronted when a lucrative January move to China was mooted.
“I was clear with him,” Conte said when discussing what became reported as a training ground altercation. “I raised my voice and the player understood. Now everything is perfect.”
His tough-talking strategy at training contrasted with the blandness of his public offerings, when any whiff of controversy was waved away with platitudes and Italian mis-speak.
After the rancour under Mourinho last season, the effect was to return a sense of order to the club while others, notably Arsenal, acted out their own soap opera in full view of everyone.
Chelsea set out to quietly accumulate points, never looking back after moving to the top of the table on Nov. 20.
The absence of European football undoubtedly helped the title push, as did consistency of selection, with Conte able to name his recognised first team far more often than his rivals.
While Guardiola chopped and changed at City, and Juergen Klopp and Mourinho counted the cost of injuries at Liverpool and Manchester United, Chelsea continued with their winning formula and stymied Tottenham’s late challenge.
All the time, Conte, the serial title winner, was steering them home with a sense of inevitability.
Editing by Ed Osmond