WEST BROMWICH, England (AP) — Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has had the golden touch in his first season in the English Premier League, all the way through to the title-clinching game.
With Chelsea scoreless at West Bromwich Albion on Friday and looking like squandering the first of three opportunities to regain the trophy, Conte took the bold decision to remove star winger Eden Hazard and introduce substitute Michy Batshuayi, a player with just one goal to his name all season.
Within six minutes, Batshuayi was poking home a close-range finish and getting mobbed by teammates in front of Chelsea’s jubilant visiting fans.
It sealed a 1-0 win at The Hawthorns and Batshuayi had just won the league for Chelsea. He later referred to himself as an “unexpected hero” in a Twitter post.
“The beauty of football,” Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas said, “a player who didn’t play a lot scores the winning goal for the championship.”
Batshuayi’s 82nd-minute strike was only his second league goal, and first since August, in a tough first season in England.
As for Conte, it couldn’t have gone any better.
The Italian became the fourth manager — after Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini — to win the Premier League in his first season in English soccer, and he was thrown in the air by his celebrating players in joyous scenes after the final whistle.
His moves in the transfer market, his tactical switches, and his late substitutions have all come off. He has now won four straight domestic league titles, taking in three in a row with Juventus from 2012-14 before a spell in charge with Itay.
“Michy paid me a lot with this change,” Conte said. “It was great. It wasn’t easy for me to arrive in England “and try different habits, a different language and inherit players after a bad season.”
But he’s taken it all in his stride.
Chelsea’s players have gone from being champions in 2015, to finishing in 10th place in 2016 following the worst-ever Premier League title defense, to being champions again.
“People have written us off as a team and individually,” Chelsea defender Gary Cahill said, “and this has shut them up.”