Antonio Conte will be smoking cigars if Chelsea beat Arsenal to win the FA Cup on Saturday – eight months after defeat to the Gunners left him mad with rage.
Conte came under heavy pressure when Chelsea lost 3-0 to Arsenal back in September but he changed his team’s formation and fortunes as they stormed to the Premier League title.
Now, Chelsea stand on the brink of a league and cup double while Arsenal are looking for redemption after missing out on the top four for the first time since 1996.
Conte said his title celebrations amounted only to saying ‘cheers’ over dinner with his staff but the Italian admitted he might afford himself some extravagance if his players triumph at Wembley.
“We have to finish this great season and make it a fantastic season,” Conte said.
“There’s only one way to do that, by winning tomorrow and celebrating, to drink a bit of champagne.
“I don’t smoke but tomorrow I’m hoping to smoke a cigar if we win. I’m ready to do this.”
Chelsea finished seven points clear at the top of the table and 18 ahead of Arsenal, a remarkable turnaround after dropping to eighth following their loss to Arsene Wenger’s men at the start of the season.
“For sure, after that defeat, it was very difficult not to see me angry,” Conte said.
“It was difficult for me to accept that defeat. That is my character. For two days, it’s not easy to live with me.
“Also for my family, though they know me very well. They understand moments like that, my wife, my daughter, my parents and my brothers.
“For sure, after that bad defeat, I was angry. But I channelled my anger in the right way. I used my anger in the right way. I tried to change the situation.”
The result prompted Conte to switch to a three-man defence and his team have never looked back.
“I think, at this moment, you see the real value of the coach,” Conte said.
“You can appreciate the reaction of the coach, if the coach is able to understand the moment and find a solution to completely change the season.
“But, honestly, I was always very calm. I knew that I was putting all of myself, all my strength, into this new job. Myself and my staff were working so hard for the club and the players.
“Anything can happen in a season, but the most important thing is your soul, your heart, are calm.”
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich even visited the club’s training ground as reports suggested Conte was close to the sack. The Blues manager, however, disagrees.
“He came for three days to watch our training sessions, to watch the video analysis, to stay with us. He supported me. He never showed me he was angry,” Conte said.
“I think the club always saw my job, during pre-season and in that period, and trusted in my job. I never thought the club was thinking about sacking me. Honestly.”
Conte has a fully fit squad available to him this weekend but that brings with it some difficult selection decisions.
He must pick between Pedro and Willian on the right flank while Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic are battling for a spot in central midfield.
Against Tottenham in the semi-final, Conte sprung a surprise by leaving both Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench and he refused to discount another gamble at Wembley.
“I think a plan becomes special if you win. If you lose, it’s a disaster,” Conte said.
“In that case, I was good but also I was lucky to pick the best formation, to start with different players and then to understand the right moments to change things.
“Tomorrow we’ll try to do our best and I have all my players available. This is great news. I have to make the best choice.”