Animated Chelsea manager Antonio Conte launched his Premier League career with a battling 2-1 victory over West Ham United thanks to Eden Hazard’s penalty and a last-gasp Diego Costa strike in an intense London derby on Monday.
Fiery Spain striker Costa, lucky to be on the pitch after a wild challenge on keeper Adrian, thumped a low shot into the net in the 89th minute, sending Conte jumping for joy and embracing his coaching staff and several fans behind the dugout.
“I think the team played a good game with a great intensity and spirit,” said Conte. “It is important to find the right spirit and intensity, we know we can improve and we must improve a lot, but today I am pleased for my players.
West Ham’s James Collins had threatened to spoil the Italian’s debut with a fine half-volleyed goal in the 78th.
Hazard had given the home side a deserved lead straight after halftime, smashing the ball into the roof of the net from the penalty spot after Michail Antonio needlessly tripped up Chelsea’s Spanish full back Cesar Azpilicueta in the area.
West Ham manager Slaven Bilic substituted Antonio immediately and did not offer the midfielder so much as a backward glance as he disappeared down the tunnel.
For Conte, who took Italy to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, the match at Stamford Bridge offered a taste of the physical side of English football and his charges looked ready for it.
The match had started at a furious pace on a warm evening in south-west London, although first-night nerves sometimes got in the way of quality football.
Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante, signed from last season’s surprise champions Leicester City, got an early yellow card for bringing down striker Andy Carroll in the fourth minute.
But there were also touches of brilliance from the 2015 league champions, who plunged down the table last season losing manager Jose Mourinho to the sack in the process.
Monday’s Chelsea side looked leaner, fitter and more motivated than under Mourinho at the start of last season.
The lively Hazard proved a constant irritation to the east Londoners, who were missing several players through injury, and the Belgian international won the man-of-the-match award.
He surged past several defenders in the 31st minute but put the ball just wide. Shortly before the break, Adrian needed to tip a finely-struck Willian free kick over the bar.
In the second half Bilic’s Hammers side found it tough to string more than two passes together.
But the home team suffered a scare when the bearded Costa threw himself into a studs up challenge with Adrian and was lucky to escape without a red card.
“I didn’t see the situation,” said Conte. “I saw him put the pressure on the keeper and then try to stop. In my opinion I think the referee took the right decision.”
Costa’s escape was certainly lucky for Chelsea after the Spaniard received a pass from new signing Michy Batshuayi and fired a low shot into the net for the late winner.