Roman Abramovich was so keen to hire Pep Guardiola as Chelsea manager back in 2012 that he left Roberto Di Matteo waiting for almost a month after winning the Champions League before handing the Italian the job on a two-year contract.
Sources at Chelsea at the time have told ESPN FC that Abramovich had become so obsessed by Guardiola’s brand of football at Barcelona that he had made it his No. 1 priority to lure the coach to Stamford Bridge.
Winning the Champions League under Di Matteo, in interim charge following the midseason dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas, was almost an inconvenient development due to the obligation to reward the former Chelsea midfielder for his success. Nonetheless, Abramovich pushed and pushed for Guardiola until, three weeks after the club became European champions, the Chelsea owner admitted defeat when he was told by the Barcelona coach that he would be taking a year out of the game after resigning at the Nou Camp.
In Abramovich’s eyes, Guardiola was the perfect manager for Chelsea.
He not only came with a winning CV, but his teams also played the dazzling attacking football that Abramovich has demanded from his managers ever since taking ownership of Chelsea back in 2003.
It was not to be, however, and it is Saturday’s Premier League opponents, Manchester City, who were ultimately successful in persuading Guardiola to put his reputation on the line in England.
Abramovich may harbour a sense of annoyance and regret when he sees his Chelsea team take on City in a crucial title battle this weekend — all-powerful, super-wealthy individuals never enjoy failing to get what they want — but there is also the possibility that he will now believe that Antonio Conte is the man to do what he always wanted Guardiola to do at Stamford Bridge.
This season was supposed to be about the battle for supremacy between Guardiola and Jose Mourinho — football’s two most celebrated managers, re-awakening the simmering feud they had between them in Spain, in Manchester with City and United respectively.
Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino were regarded as potential threats to the big two, with Arsene Wenger once again producing an Arsenal team capable of mounting a title challenge for at least two-thirds of the season.
But Conte? Chelsea had fallen well short as champions under Mourinho last season, eventually finishing 10th following the Portuguese’s midseason dismissal, and the Italy coach had been regarded as needing time to rebuild a fading force.
There was even the suggestion that Abramovich had only turned to the 47-year-old because he had already hired and fired most of the world’s elite coaches and, with Guardiola heading for City and Diego Simeone unwilling to leave Atletico Madrid, Conte was the only man with any kind of pedigree left on the rank.
English football certainly underestimated Conte, with all eyes fixed on “Pep vs. Jose” in Manchester, but while Mourinho is struggling to find the magic formula at Old Trafford, Conte has moved swiftly to turn Chelsea into winners again.
They travel to City on Saturday as Premier League leaders, one point clear of the pack, having overcome two potentially disastrous defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal in September.
After losing 3-0 at Arsenal, eight days after being outplayed in a 2-1 defeat at home to Liverpool, the storm clouds were gathering for Conte, but his strength of character and belief in his own methods, which had been hugely successful with Juventus in Serie A, carried him through the turbulence to the point where Chelsea are now confirmed title challengers.
And the bulk of the credit must go to Conte.
Twelve months ago, Mourinho lost control of the same group of players as his message began to stop being heard. He quickly paid the price by losing his job.
Conte has been smart, however, and allowed his players to ride the positive wave of good results, while at the same time making it clear he is the boss.
At Chelsea, there has been a rapid evolution. Just 13 games into the league campaign, Conte’s stamp is beginning to show with the likes of John Terry, Cesc Fabregas and Branislav Ivanovic quietly making way for David Luiz, N’Golo Kante and Victor Moses.
It’s the kind of success that could even have Abramovich forget about Pep Guardiola.
Mark is a Senior Football Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_