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Conte mistakes becoming more frequent as Chelsea struggle

There are some unwritten rules in football that, if broken, earn derision from all quarters, or, even more damagingly, can irrevocably tarnish a reputation.

There’s the waving of the imaginary yellow card, that’s a big no-no. Muted celebrations against a club said player never started a league game for always ruffles feathers too, but there is one very simple faux pas managers rarely dare break – never take your best player off in your hour of need.

At Old Trafford on Sunday, Antonio Conte, formerly a great player too, went rogue and did just that, withdrawing Eden Hazard in the 73rd minute with the match tied at 1-1. Unsurprisingly, the move backfired as Chelsea suffered what could prove to be a damaging defeat in the top four race, but it isn’t the first time Conte has slipped up this season – is the Italian tactician losing his touch?

Conte insisted the move was tactical, but what possible positive effect could bringing off Chelsea’s most influential player have, having had five days rest before Sunday, and another week until Chelsea’s next match? Willian may be Chelsea’s form player at the moment, but Hazard remains the leading light in the Chelsea dressing room – the one who can turn a draw into victory in the blink of an eye.

Hazard cannot be withdrawn, in any circumstances

Until very recently, and only when the game has been won, has Zinedine Zidane withdrawn Cristiano Ronaldo. All hell broke loose when Luis Enrique tried to substitute Lionel Messi. Ernesto Valverde hasn’t dared to follow suit. Hazard isn’t quite in the pantheon of Ballon d’Or winners alongside Messi and Ronaldo, but he is a frontrunner is the chasing pack.

In no circumstances, even at 70 per cent fitness, would Messi or Ronaldo have been taken off against a rival with the score locked at 1-1. Not in this realm or the next. Pedro, as talented as he is, is no match for the Hazard. It should never have been entertained.

That wasn’t Conte’s only mistake of the match. It did seem he had got his team selection spot on, with Alvaro Morata back to lead the line, as Manchester United really struggled to cope with Chelsea’s dynamism early in the game on Sunday.

However, without a goal for 540 minutes now, Morata’s influence dwindled as the goal drought rumbled on, with the confidence seeping out of him with every miscontrolled pass. Chelsea, as a result were masters of their own downfall.

In hindsight, Conte may wish he had stuck with the system that could, and probably should, have put the might of Barcelona to the sword last week. Hazard, not always effective as a ‘false nine’, was excellent in dragging a superbly well-organised Barcelona out of position, allowing Willian space to thunder several efforts at goal.

Under old boss Jose Mourinho, United were always going to be as equally well-drilled. Such an interchangeable system could have unsettled United, but with the immobile Morata leading the line, United, after a difficult start, soon nullified the visitors with ease.

Conte failed to capitalise on Atletico win

After another fine European display, another poor substitution cost Chelsea dear earlier in the season. On the back of a fantastic performance in their 2-1 win away at Atletico Madrid in October, Chelsea welcomed league leaders Manchester City to Stamford Bridge. While there is no shame in losing to the awesome City side, the result could have been very different if, when replacing the injured Morata in the first half, Conte elected for Michy Batshuayi instead of Willian as Morata’s replacement.

Willian is a much better player than Morata, of course, but Chelsea were having a great deal of success against City with a main striker up front. Batshuayi, on the back of scoring the stoppage-time winner against Atletico a few days earlier, could have continued to press City back. Instead, City dominated for there on in, and should have won by a more comfortable margin.

Then there is the alienating of key players. Being the hard taskmaster that he is, Conte is ruthless if players don’t give him what he wants, but to keep David Luiz, arguably Chelsea’s best defender in their title-winning season last term, on the periphery for so much of this season seems strange, no matter what the reason for the fall out.

And as Morata’s quest for goals continued with a whimper in Manchester, a snarling Diego Costa was giving Sevilla – a side United could do very little against in their Champions League draw five days prior to Sunday’sencounter – a torrid time in a 5-2 Atletico victory in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan a few hours after Chelsea’s Old Trafford loss. Oh, what might have been.

This column is not trying to cast doubt over Conte’s tactical acumen, not by any stretch. What he has achieved in Italy and England in his short career to date is mightily impressive, but the mistakes are starting to creep in. How Conte deals with them, as Chelsea struggle to make real progress this season, could define how he is remembered on these shores.

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