London (AFP) – Antonio Conte has challenged Chelsea to avenge last season’s FA Cup final heartache when they face title rivals Arsenal on Sunday.
Conte’s team were denied a memorable Premier League and FA Cup double after the champions crashed to a 2-1 defeat against Arsenal at Wembley in May.
With Alexis Sanchez scoring a controversial opener for Arsenal and Chelsea’s Victor Moses sent off for diving, it was a bitter conclusion to an otherwise perfect first season in charge for Conte.
The Gunners also handed Conte the most chastening defeat of his reign earlier that season with a 3-0 victory in the league, as well as defeating Chelsea in the Community Shield at the start of this term.
Any meeting with London rivals Arsenal is a big moment in Chelsea’s season, but those painful losses mean the latest derby at Stamford Bridge carries extra significance for Conte and company.
“I remember very well that game. We were unlucky, if you remember the first goal it was very strange,” Conte said of the Cup final.
“I was sure this goal would be disallowed, instead we started 1-0 down.
“We tried to change the game, then a red card, with 10 men we equalised, but then we conceded another goal.
“When you lose there is always disappointment but I always see a good mentality from my players when there is a defeat.
“After a bad start to this season, the Burnley defeat, I had a good answer from my players, they showed a great mentality.”
That opening weekend loss to Burnley aside, it has been a perfect start for Chelsea, with three successive league wins followed by a 6-0 thrashing of Qarabag in the Champions League on Tuesday.
In contrast, Arsenal have endured a rocky period as a loss at Stoke was followed by a humiliating 4-0 defeat against Liverpool.
Victories against Bournemouth and Cologne have done little to ease the concerns of Arsenal fans who believe Gunners boss Arsene Wenger is no longer the right man for the job.
Arsenal have gone 13 years without winning the English title and last season failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 20 years.
– Fireworks –
Keen to keep his players focused, Conte refused to write off Arsenal when asked about their troubled start.
“I don’t want to speak about Arsenal’s problems. You know very well that in a single game anything can happen,” he said.
“They are one of the six top teams in England and are capable of winning the title.”
Conte’s main concern heading into the derby is an illness that has given him a sore throat — not an ideal situation for a manager renowned for bellowing instructions at his players during matches.
“I’ve been taking anti-biotics. I hope to solve this situation, otherwise it will be a problem for me!” said Conte, who could hand a first start of the season to Eden Hazard following his recovery from ankle surgery.
Wenger’s side have no margin for error as they try to keep up with the early pace-setters in the title race and Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker admits it’s essential Sanchez rediscovers his best form.
Sanchez failed in his attempt to force a transfer to Manchester City on deadline day, but the Chile forward remains part of Wenger’s plans and scored against Cologne on Thursday.
“He’s a part of the team, so we want everyone to be involved at their best. And obviously he’s going to be vital,” Mertesacker said.
“I think he’s happy to join in and just sacrifice, that’s what he always does.”
Aware that Liverpool exploited Arsenal’s defensive flaws, Mertesacker says his side won’t be so naive this time.
“We have to learn quickly and not do the same mistake again,” he said.
“Liverpool beat us really on the break and Chelsea will try to do the same on Sunday.”