London (AFP) – Chelsea manager Antonio Conte joked he is struggling to find ways to improve N’Golo Kante after the France midfielder starred in his side’s 2-1 win at West Ham United.
Kante’s interception laid the foundation stone for Eden Hazard’s 25th-minute opener at London Stadium on Monday and he harried his opponents from first minute to last.
Asked to sum up Kante’s display, Conte complained the former Leicester City midfielder had only completed 45 of the 50 passes he had attempted, only to then burst out laughing.
“I know that he made 50 passes and he made five mistakes. He has to improve on this,” said Conte, whose side re-established their 10-point lead at the top of the table.
“I’m joking, yes. I have to find one situation to tell him to improve. He’s playing very well. N’Golo is a really good player.
“He has great stamina, but also good quality. We are working to improve the quality. I’m pleased for him, but I think all my players played very well.”
Hazard put Chelsea ahead midway through the first half, coolly finishing off a razor-sharp break involving Pedro that started when Mark Noble gifted the ball to Kante.
Diego Costa added a second goal early in the second half, kneeing the ball in from close range after Cesc Fabregas’s corner had flicked off West Ham midfielder Pedro Obiang’s head at the near post.
But Chelsea did not have things all their own way and had to weather sustained pressure from their hosts at the start and mid-way through the second half.
Chelsea had seen Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City chip away at their lead over the weekend and Conte said their display against West Ham demonstrated their mental fortitude.
“I think this period is tough because although there are only 11 games, for me 11 games are a lot,” said the Italian, a three-time Serie A champion as a manager with Juventus.
“Now in this period it’s very important to live the pressure in the right way. Above all when you play the game after you know your opponents won the day before.
“I’m pleased for the commitment, for the right mentality of my players. Very focused.
“They showed me great will to win the game and to suffer in the first part of the first half, but stay compact because we didn’t concede great chances for West Ham to score.”
– ‘Too late’ –
Asked if he had faith in his players not to blow their lead, Conte replied: “I trust them absolutely.”
Conte’s one criticism of his side was that they had not been “more clinical”, with the visitors’ failure to take more of their chances giving West Ham hope of mounting a comeback right until the end.
The home side eventually halved the deficit in stoppage time, Manuel Lanzini arrowing a shot into the bottom-left corner following a surge to the edge of the box by substitute Andre Ayew.
But West Ham manager Slaven Bilic, whose side remain in 11th place, accepted his team had been well beaten.
“We scored the goal too late,” said the Croatian.
“Statistically it looks good. The game looks even. But every attack after 2-0, they looked really dangerous. They deserved to win.
“If we had scored in the 61st or 62nd minute, when we had pressure on them, maybe things would have been different.”
While there are 11 games still to go this season, Bilic is convinced the fans in attendance had seen the champions.
“They look very serious and I can see them staying on top with the quality they have and also how solid and concentrated they are,” he said.
“Most of all how physically in good shape they are. From all the teams, Chelsea look the most solid. They’re 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League for a reason.”