Tottenham and Juventus displayed two opposite mentalities in their Champions League tie at Wembley. Chelsea should study the contrast, and recognize that victory – both on the night and over the decades – is the effect as much as the cause of Juventus’ attitude.
Not that it was ever really in doubt, but Chelsea will remain the only London club with a Champions League title for at least another year. Given the turmoil at Arsenal and the mentality at Tottenham, the Blues will more likely add to their advantage before they share the honours with anyone from north London.
At Wembley on Wednesday night, Juventus’ body language told the story of their success. It was not boastful swaggers or “we own the place” bullying, nor was there any thought of entitlement – not at 0-0, certainly not at 1-0 down and not even at the 2-1 final. Instead, there was passion for success. When Gianluigi Buffon grabbed Giorgio Chiellini by the collar and shook him to celebrate and thank the centre-back for a powerful clearance in front of goal, you knew this team was going to win. Why? Because they love every little moment that goes into winning at football, every little moment that adds up to winning a game, a title, a domestic cup or a European cup.
Buffon embodies this passion. He embraces his posts before the game. He celebrates saves and blocks with an intensity few goal-scorers could ever match. His anger, his indignation, his joy, his relief are all at full blast, in their turn. As the captain, he demands his players match him emotion for emotion. And they do, because that is part of being at Juventus.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Antonio Conte was the same way last season. His 90-minute workouts in the technical area, his in-the-crowd celebrations and the visible toll each loss took on him (and his sleep patterns) were Chelsea’s first taste of Juventus. Conte was pure Juventus, as one would expect from his 16 years there.
The diminution of Conte’s visible passion is one of the saddest sidebars to this season. Whatever he knows about his future at Chelsea, he seems unable to rouse his emotions in a club that cannot match them, let alone reciprocate. Why invest when there is no understanding of return?
In one of the many ironies of football, the one player who most closely approached Conte’s and Juventus’ blood-and-guts passion was Diego Costa. Buffon’s moment with Chiellini brought to mind Costa choking Nemanja Matic in a pointless, late-season game against Sunderland in 2016. Before surrendering to his worst wantaway instincts, Costa had the same visceral response to football as the men from Turin.
The emotion gap between Chelsea and Juventus is a consequence of the identity gap. Juventus knows who they are and what they stand for. Even Tottenham have a similar sense of identity, as they also displayed on Wednesday. They did their usual performance art, a beautiful exhibition with a familiar ending. After the game, Mauricio Pochettino reiterated his pride and happiness in the style of the play, and seemed scarcely bothered by the outcome. Proper Spurs, he is.
Juventus know who they are, and it saw them through to the quarter-finals. Tottenham know who they are, and it brings them peace as they exit in the Round of 16. Chelsea do not know who they are, and it shows every time they fail to match their emotions to the moment, or their football to the club.
Chelsea will likely spurn one of the few managers in the world who has the intensity and personality to leave a proud and productive culture at a club. If they allowed Antonio Conte to infuse Stamford Bridge with some of his Juventus-ness – merging the best of west London with the best of Turin – Chelsea would finally reach their potential as an club, a team and an institution.
Instead, some other club will reap the benefits of Antonio Conte, and Chelsea will spend another decade passing on the shadows of Jose Mourinho’s first stint. At least Tottenham will still be Tottenham.