Is the Premier League more important than the Champions League for Conte?

Andy Dillon by Andy Dillon / 19 February 2018, 16:18

IT’S A quirk of modern football that winning the Champions League is not as important as just being in it.

Recall pretty much every press conference given by every Premier League manager involved in the competition and they say the same thing.

Ensuring that your team makes the top four each year to gain entry to the promised land of elite European football and that’s job done.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has never been a European champion as a manager and still has a schoolboy notion that winning it means everything.

He will learn this week that it not the case and maybe he will be reminded of his school days when countless burgeoning young kids are told it is not the winning that counts but the taking part.

In effect, this Sunday’s Premier League match at Manchester United is a far more important game than Tuesday's glamorous Champions League last 16 home leg against Barcelona.

Chelsea sit fourth in the table, just one point above Tottenham in fifth.

Equally, they lie two points behind Manchester United who are second. A win at Old Trafford and the accompanying three points would be a huge boost to Conte’s ambition to secure Champions League football for next season.

This season, reaching the group stage alone is worth just under £12 million for starters, with more than £1m per win and £400,000 for a draw. That is just from UEFA’s coffers.

There’s £5m for the teams that reach the last 16 – where we find Chelsea at the moment.

Throw in around £1 billion of TV money to be shared out and it’s a great party to be at, without ever having to win the bloody thing.

Harry Redknapp took Tottenham into the Champions League for the first time and whilst enjoying some seismic moments against Milan and Real Madrid, was always more concerned at making sure Spurs finished top four at home to get back in for next year rather than throwing everything at lifting the trophy itself.

It’s a sad fact of life that broadcasting cash is replacing the instinctive belief to try to win a cup just for winning’s sake.

Conte is going to be confronted by this over the next few days. Here is a manager who just wants to win and hopes that that will be enough to make him recognised as a great coach.

He admits to being a ‘disaster’ in the transfer market and leaves everything to his superiors at his club to thrash out deals. He wants to work with players, boots on, muddy knees and honest toil. It’s all very innocent and sadly old-fashioned.

The meeting of Chelsea and Barcelona could not be more delicately poised. Oddly they have played each other 15 times in total and the stats stand at five wins apiece and five draws.

For Conte the only incentive will be to clinch a famous victory, to dive into the crowd at Stamford Bridge, knock off a giant of world football and go home quietly satisfied to his wife and daughter.

To him it’s all about victory, so much so that he named his only child Vittoria. But to other, more powerful people operating in the beautiful game victory is a sideshow – especially in Europe.

Of course, to go all the way and win the thing is a different matter. Chelsea have done it once but the most pragmatic approach is to put finishing in the top four first and then see how it goes in Europe.

Winning or losing over two games against Barcelona won’t decide the manager’s future. But beating Manchester United in a league match this weekend could have a much more significant effect on whether he stays or goes this summer.

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