Patience. That was the word that came into Antonio Conte's head when asked what he had learned from his first season at Chelsea. Speaking to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera shortly after leading his team to the Premier League title, he confessed that it was not a trait that he had ever located in himself before. "I feel more complete," Conte reflected.
He was not exactly a picture of forbearance at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday: bouncing, bristling and bawling angry commands from the edge of his technical area. But perhaps there was a little bit of that learned patience in the game plan he devised for Chelsea's Champions League last-16 clash with Barcelona.
From the team sheet, it was not obvious whether Conte intended to sit back or go for the jugular. He had selected a starting XI with no striker, naming Eden Hazard to play as a false nine. And yet this was still a 3-4-3, with Pedro and Willian flanking Hazard. Cesc Fabregas was hardly a defensive option to partner N'Golo Kante in midfield.
It was tempting to wonder whether Conte might reprise the tactics he used to upset Spain when manager of Italy at Euro 2016. Back then, his team unsettled technically superior opposition with an energetic high press. The combination of a back-three plus wing-backs undermined the Spaniards' ability to do the same, obliging them to either commit five men to the task or leave somebody free.
Yet it quickly became apparent Tuesday that this idea was something different. Chelsea did not always press when it lost possession but often drew back into compact lines, re-establishing its shape and daring its opponents to try to play through it. By half-time, Barcelona had held more than 75 percent of possession. And yet it was Chelsea who had twice hit the woodwork.
If it occasionally looked as though Conte was parking the bus, that was only because he wanted his opponents to believe it. By including Willian alongside Hazard up front, he had equipped his team with something more akin to a pair of drag racers.
While Barcelona struggled to pick a way through, Chelsea waited for its moments to burst out at top speed. The Blues deployed cross-field balls to open up the pitch and give their forwards space to tear into. Hazard dazzled the fans with some incisive early runs, but it was Willian who had his eye in, striking each post with shots from outside the area.
The Brazilian finally found his mark in the 62nd minute, beating Marc-Andre ter Stegen with a gorgeous finish that swerved around a muddle of players before finding its way into the bottom corner. Good things come to those who wait. In that moment, it appeared that both player and manager had seen its patience rewarded.
And then, Andreas Christensen played an ill-judged pass across the face of Chelsea's penalty area. It eluded his teammates and instead reached Andres Iniesta, who squared it for Leo Messi. He gratefully buried his first-ever goal against Chelsea, which had defied him on eight previous occasions.
Conte had confessed to sleepless nights in the build-up to this fixture, reflecting that it was not enough just to get the big things right against a team like Barcelona. "You have to prepare big things," he said at his pregame press conference, "but the smaller details too. They can move the result a lot of the time."
It is true that the Italian has never achieved the success in this competition that one would expect. With Juventus, despite winning three Serie A titles in three years, he only ever won a single knockout tie in the Champions League, against Celtic, in 2013. The Bianconeri suffered a 4-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich in the next round, and never even made it out of their group the following year.
Back then, Conte blamed a lack of resources. His remarks about not being able to eat at a €100 restaurant with €10 in your wallet came back to haunt him as Massimiliano Allegri took over and led Juve to a pair of Champions League finals. Such excuses ought not to fly at Chelsea.
The Italian has noted that the Blues cannot match the wages offered by certain clubs, yet their transfer spend in the last two windows is comparable to that of Barcelona (whose most expensive signing, Philippe Coutinho, was cup-tied in any case). Teams have thrived on this stage with much less.
Conte would have rightly drawn criticism if his team had been outmatched by Barcelona. That, emphatically, was not the case. If Chelsea play this well again at the Camp Nou, the club will deserve to progress. Not even the most perfect plan, though, guarantees success in a sport still played by human beings. You can see how a manager might need to learn a little patience along the way.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)