Conte and Chelsea turn attention to strong finish to the season
Even a top-four spot and winning the FA Cup would be unlikely to secure manager’s future
Antonio Conte: looks unlikely to be at the helm at Stamford Bridge next season following a disappointing year for the champions. Photograph: Susana Ver/Reuters
Chelsea’s players have vowed to shrug off the disappointment of Champions League elimination and salvage a faltering season, though even a top-four finish and winning the FA Cup would be unlikely to secure Antonio Conte’s future at the club.
The manager’s relationship with the hierarchy has been severely strained over a difficult campaign, largely over recruitment policy, and he is expected to leave in the summer with 12 months of his £9m-a-year contract unfulfilled.
Conte has defended his record and suggested his influence should not be judged by trophies alone but it seems inconceivable that bridges can be rebuilt with the board.
Conte, 48 and who would be a candidate to replace Unai Emery at Paris Saint-Germain but may also take a break from the game, remains fiercely committed to finishing as high as he can in the Premier League.
His fifth-placed team have home games against Tottenham and Liverpool, the sides directly above them, and travel to Leicester City on Sunday for an FA Cup quarter-final.
Asked by his Italian compatriots at Mediaset Premium whether claiming the FA Cup would be enough to retain his job into a third year, Conte said: “It’s not an issue of winning a trophy or not. The work of a coach must be judged not on victories but on the improvement of the squad and the current value of the squad. This is a team that can grow in terms of quality and experience. We can do better in every aspect. I am not seeking confirmation in victories. I continue my work aware that I am doing good work.”
Conte’s complaints that his team lack the experience to thrive in the latter stages of the Champions League, aired again after the 3-0 defeat in Barcelona, are rather undermined by the manner in which players such as Diego Costa and David Luiz were jettisoned.
The striker, admittedly a volatile character, was told he was not required by text over the summer and eventually sold back to Atlético Madrid. David Luiz, a European Cup winner with Chelsea, fell out of favour after voicing concerns over tactics after a heavy defeat by Roma in October and became a peripheral figure before suffering knee and ankle injuries.
There are concerns within the hierarchy that fractures are appearing in the manager’s relationship with Eden Hazard, substituted again at the Camp Nou and a frustrated figure of late.
State of fllux
The club are eager to secure the playmaker to a new long-term deal with wages in excess of £300,000 a week but Hazard, whose contract does not expire until 2020, may survey what changes are made over the summer before committing. He will also wait to see whether Real Madrid move for him.
There is a desire, too, to secure Thibaut Courtois on new terms though he, too, may seek evidence of the club’s ambition this summer before agreeing to extend his stay.
Chelsea, 25 points off Manchester City, have started to explore potential replacements for the departed Michael Emenalo as technical director but are undecided as to whether they should appoint a straight replacement or dilute the duties of the role. That situation has added to the sense this is a club in a state of flux.
The players returned from Barcelona intent on restoring Chelsea to the top four after a draining campaign. Marcos Alonso, asked why the team had not built on winning last season’s title, echoed the sentiments of his team-mates when he said: “It’s difficult [to explain]. So many games and we have not got the deepest squad, maybe; new players this year, I don’t know . . .
“We can only look forward and start fighting for fourth spot in the Champions League and to win the FA Cup. That is what we have to go for.
“We have eight finals [in the Premier League] and we have to make sure we play Champions League next year. If we play every game like we played against Barcelona then yes [we would be in top four], but it’s not been the case, so it’s another thing we have to take into consideration and again learn from this defeat, get stronger and improve.”
Chelsea continue to gather statements from supporters injured before Wednesday’s game. Footage on social media showed private security staff, hired on match days by Barcelona, appearing to use batons on away fans in a crammed tunnel as they were funnelled into the stadium.
“The incidents were brought to the attention of Uefa immediately and information we collect will form the basis of a report the club will send to the relevant authorities and organisations,” said a Chelsea spokesman.
This morning Manchester City and Liverpool will discover their Champions League quarter-final opponents.
The north-west clubs are the only surviving Premier League representatives after Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham were eliminated at the last-16 stage.
With country protection and group seedings removed for the last-eight draw, City and Liverpool could be pulled out together or handed a tie against any of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Bayern Munich, Juventus or Roma.
An all-English tie would put runaway Premier League leaders City against one of only four sides to have beaten them this season in all competitions.
Liverpool triumphed 4-3 when the sides met at Anfield in January, although City did win their Etihad Stadium clash 5-0 earlier in the season.
City are regarded by many as the Champions League favourites having swept almost all before them this season. They claimed the Carabao Cup last month and, with a 16-point lead at the top of the Premier League, are potentially just two wins away from securing their domestic title.
Manager Pep Guardiola is chasing Champions League success for a third time as manager having triumphed twice while in charge of Barcelona. He also took Bayern Munich to the semi-finals three times and a draw against either of his former clubs would be intriguing.
None of the potential ties would be a step into the unknown for City. The club are competing in the Champions League for a seventh successive year – the longest ongoing sequence of any English side – and have visited all their prospective opponents during that time.
It is, however, only the second time they have reached the last eight. The other occasion was two years ago, when they beat Paris St Germain before being knocked out by eventual champions, and current holders, Real Madrid in the semi-finals.
Liverpool’s progress to the quarter-finals marks their best performance in the competition since 2009, when they were beaten by Chelsea, but as five-time European champions they bring considerable pedigree to the draw.
Indeed, the eight clubs remaining have 29 European Cup and Champions League titles between them. City, Roma and Sevilla are the only sides still involved never to have been crowned Europe’s top team.
The quarter-final draw takes place at 11am on Friday. The ties will played on April 3rd/4th and 10th/11th.