Chelsea hope spice of Antonio Conte will get them back into the big time
The Blues’ annus horribilis is magnified by the success of their former manager now at Leicester City
The remarkable, meteoric rise of last season’s relegation escapees Leicester has been accentuated by the upending of champions-turned-chumps Chelsea.
The mere thought of a reverse in both teams’ fortunes at the start of the campaign would have brought howls of derision.
Dumped out of all cup competitions, Chelsea need miracles to claim the automatic Europa League spot, let alone an automatic Champions League berth, while any design on retaining the title left the building yonks ago with Jose Mourinho.
Sanctions against firebrand striker Diego Costa for last weekend’s flare-up during the FA Cup quarter-final defeat against Everton have made even the modest salvage of this risible season all the more difficult.
Interim boss Guus Hiddink has been shrugging his shoulders more and talking up the team’s recovery less, knowing he will be absolved of any blame for Chelsea’s annus horribilis, having done well to achieve mid-table mediocrity.
A win against high-flying London rivals West Ham this weekend would be a welcome respite from the humiliation suck-up that still has two more months to run before proper rehabilitation can begin.
And it was acquiescent smiles rather than whoops of joy and relief that greeted the news Chelsea’s 12th manager in 13 years will be on his way earlier than expected.
Antonio Conte’s appointment is all but signed and sealed – and already causing upset.
The announcement he will step down as the Italy national coach after the Euros upset the Italian FA, who complained Chelsea’s brazen courtship of their man ahead of the tournament showed a lack of respect.
Conte is to multitask. He will oversee the Azzurri’s’ last pre-tournament warm-up game with Scotland on May 29 and then head back to Chelsea to start laying out the foundations for a revival.
The former Juventus manager, who won eight Serie A titles with Juventus – five as a player and three as a manager – became Italy’s coach in 2014 but has found the job too pedestrian. He wanted a return to the daily combat of domestic football management and all the challenges it brings.
He will get all that – and then some – at Chelsea, where the in-tray is already piled as high as Mt Vesuvius and where controversy is as much a fixture of the club as the lion that adorns the team badge.
His biggest priority will be to strengthen the entire spine of the squad while delicately managing a mass clear-out of players, forced or otherwise.
Loyal servant and fans’ favourite John Terry and Diego Costa are almost certainly departing, while midfield lynchpin and prized asset Eden Hazard is also keen to leave. Cesc Fabregas, Nemanja Matic and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois are also said to be eyeing the exit door.
Big signings will be vital though not easy for Conte, who will have little to offer other than domestic graft to ambitious players courted by other high-achieving teams.
And when not trawling the academies and transfer market, he will also need to build a power base at what is an infamously political snake pit of a club.
There are various fiefdoms of advisers, agents, friends and hangers-on who all have the ear of owner Roman Abramovich, and he will need to keep them all – friends and enemies – close while trying to keep the emperor happy.
Abramovich will spend the summer brooding on his yacht, embarrassed and humiliated that his team is not in the Champions League, and likely not in a European competition for the first time since he bought the club.
He will expect an immediate improvement from Mourinho’s full-time replacement.
On a positive note, Conte’s appointment should finally rid Chelsea of Mourinho’s spectre; closure is paramount if the team are to ever recover from that painful, protracted love-hate affair.
There is blissful irony in the raft of similarities between Conte and Mourinho, however: both are passionate, strong souls susceptible to OCD-like micro-management, and each has a short fuse.
If he survives the first 100 days, Conte will add even more fizz and spark to the Premier League’s eclectic management dynamic – another high-calibre strategist pitting his wits against the likes of Juergen Klopp, Arsene Wenger, Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola , and Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho (if he finds a job) and of course Claudio Ranieri.
He will likely be in the VIP seats during Chelsea’s last game of their desperate season – at home to Leicester on May 15. There he will hopefully witness the irresistible, implausible punchline of this extraordinary campaign.
Meantime, as he attempts to appease his countrymen over his new distraction and earnestly plots to meet Abramovich’s high expectations, he has an early April court date to clear his name over alleged match-fixing in the Italian leagues.
You really can’t make it up in this glorious season.