Column - Conte outshines Pep against all odds

HALFWAY TO HEAVEN FOR ONE, en route to hell in a well-upholstered handcart for the other might sum up how the two newest managerial brooms in English football are faring midway through another frenetic season.

If, at the beginning of August, you had been asked which of Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte would sweep clean to the point of being 10 points ahead of the other at the halfway stage, all the money – not just the wise bit – would have been on the former.

And if you'd wanted to wager at the end of September, the bookies wouldn't let you – they had suspended betting on Conte being sacked.

Chelsea had just been thrashed by Arsenal and Roman Abramovich summoned the Italian to lunch. Pep, meanwhile, had won his first 10 games.

Whatever the Russian owner ordered, he was given plenty of antipasto for thought.

Conte survived the grilling to find a magic formula while Guardiola's City suddenly lost their appetite and since then their bearings.

This season was always going to be about the clutch of superstar managers, but the reversal of fortune for these two is THE story so far.

No foreign boss had ever come to England with a bigger rep than Pep whereas about Conte there was an air of mystery and maybe the odd skeleton in his cupboard.

Implicated in a match-fixing scandal, the former Italy boss had to wait until the spring to clear his name.

He had been an international player but was no Baggio or Buffon, and he'd won the Scudetto with Juventus – a feat widely believed to be within the compass of a head waiter at the local trattoria.

His CV was certainly no match for Pep's, nor was his touchline demeanour.

Our first real glimpse of him came at the Euros where his goal celebrations looked as if he'd learned he'd won the lottery while simultaneously finding a scorpion in his jock-strap.

Then there was his lack of English – an essential second language for uniting Chelsea's multi-national squad at the best of times.

But this was the worst of times – something that is easy to forget now as he charms us in sotto voce at press conferences, every bit as calm as he is manic on the touchline. He learned the lingo in three months and he turned around Chelsea even more quickly.

It seems incredible now but he inherited a mess, a club in turmoil which had made the worst defence of a title in Premier League history.

Star players had worked to rule and wanted to leave under his predecessor Jose Mourinho, and only the steady hand of Guus Hiddink had averted an unthinkable relegation scrap.

Contrast this with the carefully orchestrated build-up enjoyed by Guardiola.

Where the Catalan had been consulted over signings while still at Bayern and for whom South American players were even prepared to brave the Manchester weather, Conte was denied funds to bring in his first-choice recruits.

Being top by six points at halfway in his first season is remarkable enough but when the circumstances are taken into account, Conte's achievement is not that far behind the fairy story engineered by compatriot Claudio Ranieri last season.

And when contrasted with Guardiola who, besides having old Barca friends in high places at City and the vast riches of Abu Dhabi at his disposal, it will rank, if sustained, alongside the top-flight feats of Arsene Wenger (winning the double in his first full season) and Brian Clough (League and League Cup in first at Forest).

No one saw this coming when Conte reverted to three at the back. But this tweak, relatively minor but now on a par with inventing the wheel, has seen the Blues win 13 matches in a row and become unbackable favourites for the title.

All he did was bring in Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses as wingbacks to augment a back trio of Cesar Azpilacueta, Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Two players neglected by Mourinho have been running up and down the flanks like hares which has given Chelsea a flexibility no team has been able to match.

But it is in man-management where he has been arguably even more impressive. Turning a wantaway rabble into a band of brothers, he has reunited a talented squad with which Mourinho won the title two years ago.

Diego Costa could have played either the "Bad" or the "Ugly" against Clint Eastwood in the movies and the belief was that attempts to get him to curb his edge risked losing his effectiveness.

Under Conte, he has been almost a choirboy with just five bookings in as many months – but he's playing even better and has not lost his killer instinct.

Petulance and howlers also seemed part of Luiz's DNA – but they have been all but eradicated. And there's still no place for Mr Chelsea – the Blues have done all this without their captain, leader, legend. Nor is John Terry smouldering from the sidelines and might even forego the riches of China to help the youngsters!

Compare all this with poor old Pep whose ups and downs this column has frequently documented.

Having spent a fortune and enjoyed a flying start, it now looks as if he has a major task to even make the top four.

But there's no need to rake over what has gone wrong at City: this is about lauding what has gone right at the Bridge and saluting a truly phenomenal piece of football management. Take a bow, Antonio Conte.