London (AFP) – Frustrated by his past failures in the Champions League, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has set his sights on a mission of redemption as he returns to the competition after a four-year absence.
Conte still bears the scars from a snowy night in Istanbul in 2013 when Juventus suffered a shock defeat against Galatasaray that sent the Italian giants crashing out of Europe’s elite club competition.
That embarrassing exit remains Conte’s last experience of the Champions League, but he will end that wait on Tuesday when Chelsea host Azerbaijan minnows Qarabag in their Group C opener.
Having led Chelsea to the Premier League title last season, the 48-year-old would dearly love to bring the London club their second Champions League crown.
But bitter experience will remind Conte to take nothing for granted.
In his first Champions League campaign in 2012-13, Juventus were pitted against Conte’s future employers Chelsea, as well as Shakhtar Donetsk and Nordsjaelland.
Conte’s team won the group with an unbeaten run of three wins and three draws, including a 3-0 rout of holders Chelsea in Italy and a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.
The Bianconeri cruised past Celtic in the last 16, with 3-0 and 2-0 victories dispatching the over-matched Scottish club.
But in the quarter-finals, Juventus found themselves in deep water against Bayern Munich.
Although Conte’s well-drilled side were peerless in Serie A — where they won the title by nine points, Bayern taught them a lesson in Europe.
Bayern won 2-0 at home and eased into the semi-finals with another victory by the same score in Turin.
The following season, Conte led Juventus to the Serie A for a third successive season as the Turin giants amassed a record total of 102 points.
Conte had created a potent mix by adding Argentine forward Carlos Tevez and Spanish striker Fernando Llorente to a team bolstered by the emergence of Paul Pogba.
They won 33 of 38 league matches and finished 17 points clear of second placed Roma.
But it was a far different story in the Champions League, where what should have been a fairly undemanded group turned into a four-month horror story for Conte.
– Humiliating –
Draws against Copenhagen and Galatasaray in the first two matches put Juve in trouble ahead of back to back meetings with Real Madrid.
A Cristiano Ronaldo brace condemned Juventus to a 2-1 defeat in Spain, while the return in Turin produced a 2-2 draw that left Conte on the brink of a humiliating early exit.
Arturo Vidal’s hat-trick inspired a 3-1 win over Copenhagen that set up a do or die trip to Galatasaray, where a point would be enough for Juve to advance.
However, fate conspired against Conte as the tie was at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium was halted in the first half with the score 0-0 as heavy snowfall made playing conditions impossible.
Forced to play the rest of the match 24 hours later despite the poor condition of the snow-damaged pitch, Juventus were frozen out in the most miserable finale.
Just five minutes from achieving the point they needed, Conte was plunged into despair as Wesley Sneijer slotted in the Galatasaray winner.
Attempting to salvage some pride in the Europa League — the second tier competition they were consigned to after that early exit, once again Conte’s men underachieved.
They got past Trabzonspor, Fiorentina and Lyon, but a semi-final defeat against Benfica, 2-1 on aggregate, came with the added sting of denying them a place in the final which was to be played at their own Turin stadium.
With Chelsea in good form in the Premier League and key playmaker Eden Hazard back from injury, Conte is keeping his fingers crossed that Europe is kinder to him this time.
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