LONDON Straight-talking Antonio Conte has earned the utmost respect from his players at Stamford Bridge and has built a side that seems impervious to pressure, former Chelsea striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has told Reuters.
The Premier League leaders host title rivals Arsenal on Saturday knowing that victory over their London rivals in the early kickoff would send them 12 points clear at the top.
Hasselbaink, who played for the club from 2000-2004, has seen Conte's impact firsthand and said he believed the Italian was well on his way to securing the Premier League trophy. "I went to see him the other day at the training ground," Hasselbaink told Reuters in an interview.
"Conte is someone with a lot of experience, a lot of success and you can see he gets a lot of respect from his players. Conte breathes respect, determination and commitment." Hasselbaink, 44, who left his post as Queen Park Rangers manager in November, said his straightforward approach on the training ground left his players in no doubt about their responsibilities on the field.
"Yes, he's very straight and the training sessions are simple but clear," said Hasselbaink. "Everybody knows what to do and how to do it. "I think everybody has their own ways but (Conte) has obviously got a lot of things right so you look at that and you see how you can use that in your own style." The former Dutch international netted over 80 goals in 177 appearances for Chelsea before moving to Middlesbrough and the powerful striker looked back on the clashes with Arsenal with fond memories. "For Chelsea it was always a big game and it was full of passion, fight and rivalry. It was always nice to play in that fixture," he added. "I don't think the manager has to say a lot (to get the team fired up). The match will take care of itself."
NO PANIC Hasselbaink, who won the League Two title with Burton Albion in his first coaching job in English football, admired Chelsea's resilience under pressure. "I've been impressed with how compact they are, how much they are together, and the understanding between the player is very good," he said. "But most importantly, it's how comfortable they are without the ball. "You have a lot of teams who panic but Chelsea are still in control when they don't have the ball. That for me is something very important as a manager."
Arsenal, who beat Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates in September, will not have manager Arsene Wenger on the touchline after the Frenchman received a four-game ban for misconduct.
The loss, however, forced Conte to switch to a 3-4-3 formation and Chelsea went on to win 15 of their next 17 league games to create a comfortable nine-point gap at the top.
"I think Conte will be very happy," said Hasselbaink. "The game this weekend is going to be an important one. It's a must-not-lose for Chelsea - even a draw is not a bad result for them. "They know that Arsenal can turn it on and play really, really good football but to affect the league Arsenal need to win and I think that will suit Chelsea.
"They're quite good when they don't have the ball and can explore those counter attacking moments."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)