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UEFA Champions League: Roma Put Chelsea In Wonderland

This one will hurt Antonio Conte more than the rest. The Italian is a notoriously bad loser, but this defeat, on his first return to his home country since stepping down as national team manager, will have badly dented his pride.

Conte has built his reputation as one of the most admired coaches in Europe on organisation and rock solid defending, but Chelsea displayed neither in the Stadio Olimpico as goals from Stephan El Shaarawy and Diego Perotti secured Roma’s victory and prevented the Blues from clinching qualification from Group C.

And Conte was as much to blame as his players, who switched off at key moments, as Chelsea’s head coach got his big decisions wrong. He stuck with Antonio Rudiger, who suffered a nightmare return to his former club, watched Cesc Fabregas and Tiemoue Bakayoko get overrun and was punished for moving Pedro to right-back in the second half.

The fact Atletico Madrid were held by Qarabag, leaving Chelsea in a good position to qualify for the knockout stages, will be scant consolation for Conte, whose team simply fell apart in Rome.

Chelsea’s performance was pretty much summed up by a comical scene when they were already trailing by three goals. Rudiger, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta all stood in a line to try to stop the superb Edin Dzeko, allowing the striker to shift the ball over to Perotti.

Perotti was off target on that particular occasion, but Chelsea looked anything but a Conte team with their schoolboy defending.

Ahead of the first match between these two teams at Stamford Bridge, Conte had said that it would give him “goosebumps” to go up against his former Italy national team trio of Alessandro Florenzi, Daniele De Rossi and El Shaarawy again.
The threesome were named on the substitutes’ bench in London, but all started in Rome and El Shaarawy took just 38 seconds to catch Chelsea and Conte cold.

Former Manchester City duo Aleksandar Kolarov and Dzeko, who both scored in the 3-3 draw at Chelsea, combined and the ball bounced off the striker’s head into the path of El Shaarawy, who smashed it first time past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. It was the fastest Champions League goal in Roma’s history and the worst possible start for Chelsea, who were once again missing N’Golo Kante.

The midfielder was deemed not fit enough to start or even take a place on the substitutes’ bench in Rome, following a late check on his hamstring.

Conte resisted the temptation to further bolster his midfield in Kante’s continued absence, as Danny Drinkwater started on the bench and Fabregas and Bakayoko were asked to marshal the centre of the park between them.
Fabregas was making his 100th Champions League appearance and fashioned a chance from which Chelsea almost levelled the scores in just the fourth minute.

The Spaniard sent Eden Hazard through on goal, but, under pressure, the Belgian allowed Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker to get down to save his low shot.

Just as the 3-3 draw at Stamford Bridge had been, the game was wide open and frenetic with both sides looking vulnerable at the back.

An inviting high cross from Marcos Alonso was missed by everyone and Hazard had a shot on the turn well saved by Becker in the 24th minute.

Moments later, Alvaro Morata missed a glorious chance to break his five-game run without a goal by lifting the ball over the crossbar from close range after Pedro had blocked an attempted clearance.

Chelsea’s record signing had got himself into a muddle over whether or not he likes London ahead of this game and his finish from inside the six-yard box was just as uncertain.

Having seen his side fall behind so early, Conte spent the entire first half camped on the edge of his technical area in the Stadio Olimpico barking instructions to his players and signalling where each pass should be sent.

Conte was grateful that Courtois saved with his feet after a mistake from Luiz allowed Dzeko to play in El Shaarawy, who would have expected to have doubled his and Roma’s tally. But El Shaarawy soon got over that missed chance as he did extend the home side’s advantage nine minutes before half-time and it was a goal former Roma defender Rudiger will not want to see again.

Conte had decided to keep Rudiger in his back three, despite bringing back captain Gary Cahill, but the German was badly at fault in his old home.

Radja Nainggolan’s hopeful pass forwards should have been easily cut out, but Rudiger allowed the ball to bounce past him and El Shaarawy made no mistake to find the back of the net.

Chelsea desperately tried to gain a foothold in the game before the break, as Alonso curled a shot towards the Roma goal that Becker tipped wide. From the resulting corner, Bakayoko headed a wonderful chance wide and the visitors trudged in for what presumably would have been a half-time rocket from Conte.

Conte opted against any half-time changes, but quickly decided on a reshuffle after Dzeko had shot over after collecting a pass from El Shaarawy.

Willian replaced Cahill to give Chelsea more attacking options, but the decision to ask Pedro to move back and play as a makeshift right-back backfired spectacularly.

Just seven minutes after the change, Fabregas gave the ball away and Perotti easily rounded Pedro before rifling a superb shot past Courtois and killing the game.

Perotti then fired over and Courtois had to pull off a stunning save to prevent substitute Kostas Manolas making Chelsea’s pain even worse. This was a night to forget, but it may take some getting over for Conte.

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