Chelsea are now left with only the FA Cup to fight for in the 2017-18 campaign after a 3-0 loss against Barcelona knocked the club out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage. The blues had been hoping to make progression into the quarter-finals and a 1-1 draw from the first leg provided reasonable confidence to expect the same. Now, Chelsea are staring at one of the worst campaigns in recent memory and this could have a direct impact on the position of Antonio Conte at the end of the season.
Success is of paramount importance in the sport – just like cricket – and Conte has not delivered enough of it in 2017-18.
Conte was widely expected to leave his role at Chelsea even at the start of the year, although concrete rumours expected the Italian to leave West London in the summer. The Italian seemed to have lost his hunger only a few months back. However, a string of big matches brought the Italian back to life – and indeed Chelsea. There have been some epic performances along the way and the 4-1 aggregate loss against Barcelona does not tell the whole story of the two legs.
Roman Abramovich has a habit of firing his managers without second thoughts. Roberto di Matteo lasted just over six months after winning the Champions League, while Carlo Ancelotti lasted just a year after winning the double. There are numerous such examples littered throughout the decade-long regime of the Russian.
The Russian would argue that his tactics of doing away with managers and replacing them with new ones has not had a negative impact on the club – in fact, it has been the opposite. Chelsea have been the most successful club in London over the last decade and would be one of the top if the Premier League was concerned. The blues have lifted numerous honours including the Champions League during the time of the Russian. The keyword ‘stability’ has always applied with regards to the boardroom, scouting network, and players. Now, however, Abramovich cannot afford to take the same route.
Conte happens to be one of the best tactical managers Chelsea have had since Jose Mourinho’s first spell (the second spell of the Portuguese was largely a hit and miss). The Italian knows how to set up a team and if not for striking the woodwork on four occasions and being denied a penalty, Chelsea would have been through into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. In order to dominate cup competitions, a huge element of luck is required. Abramovich would point out to the disastrous league position for Chelsea, as the club are outside the top four for the last few weeks. Chelsea are at the distant 3.00 to finish in the top four, as per the odds at Betway (15/03).
After winning the title last season, Chelsea were expected to strengthen the squad and build on a campaign that had set new benchmarks. Yet, the club went in the opposite direction by making far too many changes at both ends of the pitch. The departures of players like Diego Costa and John Terry has had a huge impact, while they have just not been replaced well. Continuity is key and it is one of the factors behind Jose Mourinho keeping a player like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, despite many pundits suggesting otherwise.
Former Manchester United manager’s Alex Ferguson always used to go on a spending spree after having just won a league title. At Chelsea, the opposite has happened with the club’s net spend not greater than Everton and almost on par with Huddersfield Town – this says a lot about the effort that has gone into strengthening the squad.
For once, the fault does not seem to lie with the manager or the players. The campaign still has the potential to end up as a positive one for Chelsea, as the team are only a couple of points behind Tottenham in the Premier League while still being in the FA Cup. A victory in the cup competition coupled with a top four finish, which will now guarantee direct qualification to the Champions League group stages, can be regarded as a relatively successful campaign. After all, none of the 19 Premier League clubs were in the title race with Manchester City, who have been in a league of their own.
Conte has the charisma to attract players and he is a manager who has tried to give players a fair chance. Introduction of young players like Andreas Christensen and giving chances to out-of-favour names like Victor Moses are a few of his successes at Chelsea.
Despite all the recommendation that Abramovich is set to receive from the likes of Marina Granovskaia, it is highly unlikely that Conte will remain at the club – even if he manages to win the FA Cup and qualifies for the Champions League.