LONDON (Reuters) - How quickly affections can switch in soccer. Where once they would serenade coach Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge with an operatic flourish, now Chelsea fans have fallen headlong for another man driving them inexorably to the Premier League title.
To the Bridge faithful, Mourinho’s “not special any more” now he’s pitched up at Manchester United but their embrace for coach Antonio Conte will be suffocating if he guides the Blues to a title-clinching victory at West Bromwich Albion on Friday.
As the arty canvas held by his daughter at Monday’s home victory over Middlesbrough put it, the Italian is now already enshrined as “The Confather” to a happy family of ruthless operators in blue.
No wonder. Albeit a quietly charming, thoughtful figure away from the pitch, on the touchline Conte comes across as a manic, hyperactive figure making demands of his players that they dare not refuse. Win this game or else, his eyes scream.
So don’t expect him to stop now. Conte has spent his time since the 3-0 drubbing of Middlesbrough trotting out his familiarly cautious mantra about hard work, fight and commitment still being needed to finish their efficient job.
Just a “little step”, he warned softly, but “one that won’t be easy”.
He hailed West Brom as “a really good, physical team” but, of late, the truth is that Tony Pulis’s eighth-placed side have looked anything but, having lost four of their last five games.
If Chelsea win, they will have an unassailable 10-point lead over Tottenham Hotspur and will become English champions for a sixth time.
A defeat or draw, though, would still leave Spurs the flimsiest of lifelines as they prepare for an emotional afternoon at White Hart Lane on Sunday against Manchester United, fittingly illustrious visitors for the last match to be played at the Lilywhites’ 118-year-old stadium.
United may prove suitably distracted too with manager Jose Mourinho having written off their chances of a top-four finish while fluttering eyes only at the Europa League.
So, with United out of the equation, the fight for the third and fourth places to guarantee Champions League football next term reaches a critical point.
Manchester City will be in the driving seat if they beat Leicester City at the Etihad on Saturday but it looks no easy task with last year’s champions belatedly reprising some of their 2015-16 heroics under Craig Shakespeare’s watch.
Victory would give Pep Guardiola’s side a two-point lead over Liverpool after 36 games with Juergen Klopp’s men then having to negotiate a tricky visit to West Ham United on Sunday in their penultimate match.
Arsenal, who beat Southampton 2-0 on Wednesday to move three points behind Manchester City in fifth, remain long shots in the top-four race as they face Stoke City on Saturday.
At the other end of the table, Sunderland may still be licking their wounds after already being relegated but they could still have a huge say in who joins them and Middlesbrough in the second-tier Championship.
With two games each left, it has come down to a three-way battle between Hull City (34 points), Swansea City (35) and Crystal Palace (38) to avoid the one remaining relegation spot.
Sunderland host Swansea on Saturday and if Paul Clement’s visitors prevail, it will only make it an even more nerve-shredding Sunday lunchtime at Selhurst Park where the clash between Sam Allardyce’s Palace and Marco Silva’s Hull has been touted as the most expensive relegation tussle of all.
With relegation set to cost any of the three clubs flirting with the drop an estimated 100 million pounds ($129 million) Allardyce knows defeat could drag his side into a nightmarish final Sunday where just one point separates the trio.
“We can’t have the devastation of being relegated,” said the man who has, famously, never had to suffer the indignity in the Premier League. Victory would ensure he maintains that proud record.
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Editing by Ed Osmond