Chelsea supporters show renewed faith in Conte following weeks of uncertainty
Heading in to Stamford Bridge prior to Chelsea's Champions League tie with Barcelona, Blues supporters had been in an expectant, although somewhat edgy, mood.
Prematch tension -- brought on by thoughts of Antonio Conte's side crumbling calamitously like they had last month against Bournemouth and Watford if Barca went in front -- hadn't been eased by the team news.
Even though Conte had experienced strikers Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud available, the Italian opted to deploy Eden Hazard as a "false No. 9" flanked by Willian and Pedro. The frustration felt by the fans was palpable. If that wasn't enough to contend with, there were the constant reminders that the most dangerous player in world football, Lionel Messi, had failed to score against Chelsea in eight attempts and would surely break his duck.
What transpired on the pitch was a further source of frustration, but for a different reason than expected.
As Conte advised postmatch, Chelsea came close to playing the perfect game against Barca. Had man-of-the-match Willian scored rather than hitting the post twice in the first half, the London club might have been home and hosed by the time the Brazil international did find the back of the net after the break.
A Willian hat trick against mighty Barcelona would have been something considering the fact his starting berth was pretty much down to Conte playing Hazard up front on his own. The Italian's decision would have been vindicated, even though Conte appears to be trying to knock a square peg into a round hole by using Hazard in that way. Against quality opposition, Chelsea's talisman is always more effective when ghosting in off his favoured left flank.
Unfortunately, at 1-0, there was always a chance that the Blues' steadfast backline might be undone by a moment of carelessness, and that's just what happened.
Prodigious and otherwise excellent centre-back Andreas Christensen had a momentary lapse of reason, gifted Barca the ball to Andres Iniesta who teed up Messi and that was that: 1-1. A precious away goal for the La Liga giants who are now strong favourites to progress ahead of the second leg which will take place at Camp Nou next month.
There are no prizes given for almost playing the perfect game. Indeed, Conte came in for some criticism for what was viewed as "park the bus" tactics at home instead of playing a striker and going for it in the way Manchester City or Liverpool might have done. Whether or not the Blues boss opts for the same setup in the second leg remains to be seen although he did suggest that it would have been "suicidal" to play 3-5-2 with a striker against Barca.
Putting tactics to one side, perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the whole event from the perspective of Chelsea supporters was the attitude and application of Conte's players who stuck rigidly to his gameplan.
Nagging doubts about their commitment, which had surfaced during last month's disasters, had long since evaporated by the final whistle. The chants of "Antonio, Antonio" that reverberated repeatedly around the Bridge throughout the match were a ringing endorsement of the belief the fans still have in the charismatic Italian.
Prior to the trip to Barcelona, however, Chelsea face a trio of Premier League fixtures which will continue to challenge Conte and his team.
On Sunday, the all-too familiar figure of Jose Mourinho, now in the guise of Manchester United manager, will be out to prove a point and grab all three at Old Trafford. The following week a visit to the Etihad to take on champions-elect Manchester City will provide perhaps the sternest examination yet of the Blues' recently regained resilience and belief.
Several days before the Barca match, bogey side Crystal Palace will rock up at the Bridge. The Eagles have been shock 2-1 winners on their past two visits to SW6 and they also won by the same scoreline in the reverse fixture at Selhurst Park earlier this season.
While the outcome of those matches will go a long way to deciding Chelsea's season, the Blues look back to normal. And in an increasingly uncertain football world, that is all the supporters can ask for and are greatly appreciative of it.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco