Antonio Conte began his Chelsea career with a win, a win that was almost the perfect summary of what the Premier League is like and the challenges he will face. Chelsea beat West Ham thanks to Diego Costa’s last-minute strike from 20 yards, having conceded an equaliser to West Ham’s first shot on target.
This was a high-octane low-quality game, in which N’Golo Kante and Costa both might have been sent off for second bookable offences, before Costa finally won the game for Chelsea.
It will Chelsea months to get fully up to speed with how Antonio Conte wants them to play, especially until they sign more of the players that he wants. This could only be a provisional test but it was at least a good taste of what Premier League football is like: under lights, against local rivals, played at a frenetic pace.
Conte wants his Chelsea team to play aggressive athletic 4-2-4 but they are not ready yet. So his compromise was a 4-3-3 with just one new signing from the team that started opening day last year, Kante, who sat in front of the back four.
Kante was ferocious, snapping into tackles even after he was booked for a foul on Andy Carroll three minutes in. He helped Chelsea to set a higher tempo to their game, one which Willian, Oscar and Diego Costa did their best to maintain. Chelsea had the intensity but could not quite find the precision to go with it. Their best chance fell to their least accomplished finisher, as Branislav Ivanovic cut inside onto his left foot but could not beat Adrian at his near post.
Chelsea continued to get men running into the box but with no reward. Oscar surged into the area and went down in the vicinity of Winston Reid, but was not awarded a penalty. Hazard drove forward onto his right foot, but whistled his shot beyond the far post.
If Chelsea were anxious that they had missed their first-half chance then they need not have been. Because four minutes into the second half West Ham gifted them the easiest goal they will score this season. Michail Antonio had the ball at right-back but tried an ambitious chip out.
It went straight to Cesar Azpilicueta, who gleefully strolled past Antonio and into the box. Antonio pulled him down, conceded the penalty and was booked. Eden Hazard struck the ball perfectly into the ceiling of the net, just underneath the crossbar, for the first goal of the Conte regime.
The goal summed up why West Ham should play a right-back at right-back rather than Antonio, who makes no claim to be one. Bilic hauled him off for Sam Byram, who is a specialist, but the damage had been done. A humiliated Antonio walked straight down the tunnel.
West Ham were not creating much, but at 1-0 they were still in the game. They continued to hit long balls to Carroll, knowing they would eventually pay it off. So they did, when Dimitri Payet had been introduced. Carroll won a free-kick, Payet forced a corner, and when he curled it in Chelsea could not clear.
Valencia’s shot was blocked and it fell to James Collins who, just inside the box, swung his left foot and somehow found the top corner. It felt as if Chelsea’s hard work would all be wasted, then, until they won it in the last minute.
Conte had thrown on Michy Batshuayi and he flicked Matic’s long ball towards Costa. Free 20 yards out, Costa was not challenged by either West Ham centre-back, allowing him to pick his spot in the bottom corner, sending Conte charging off into the fans.