Antonio Conte won’t quit despite Chelsea’s dismal run of form
Club deny reports of Luis Enrique meeting as manager gives players three days off
Antonio Conte signed improved terms at Chelsea over the summer but his deal only runs to 2019, with this season’s backdrop of discord fuelling suggestions that he will depart the club 12 months early. Photograph: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Antonio Conte has no intention of resigning at Chelsea despite his team’s recent dismal run and expects to oversee the game against West Bromwich Albion next week, though the Italian has agreed to his players’ request for extra time off to recharge their batteries amid a draining schedule. The ailing champions endured a second successive three-goal defeat at Watford on Monday to leave the head coach, who was always expected to depart Stamford Bridge in the summer, battling to retain his position in the short term.
Chelsea have denied reports in Spain that their director Marina Granovskaia has met the former Barcelona manager Luis Enrique about succeeding Conte and insist it remains business as usual at the club despite only two wins in 10 games since the turn of the year.
The board’s instinct has always been to avoid upheaval mid-season, particularly with the team still in the top four and with the Champions League and FA Cup ties ahead. Yet Roman Abramovich has traditionally wielded the axe when it appears his club’s chances of qualifying for the Champions League are in jeopardy.
While the focus is naturally drawn towards the European ties with Barcelona, Chelsea face daunting league games at Manchester United and Manchester City in between the collisions with the Catalans. Tottenham Hotspur, currently fifth, are due at Stamford Bridge on April 1st.
Conte admitted his team had played “with fear” at Vicarage Road and rejected using injuries and fatigue as an excuse for their poor form. Yet, with that game their 41st of the season – they had played only 29 at the same stage last term – he has acknowledged an empty week is an opportunity to grant his players a rest. The Italian had originally scheduled preparations for the West Brom fixture to begin on Wednesday. However, he is understood to have granted his players’ request for a three-day break after discussions in the away dressing room after the match at Watford.
Senior members of the squad had previously expressed concern at the sense they were being overworked in training, with the intensity of last year’s sessions apparently retained despite the increased number of matches. Conte suggested last week the team had actually been “working a lot less than last season” but, with eight players having succumbed to hamstring injuries to date and Marcos Alonso rested at Vicarage Road after suffering his own twinge before the match, something had to change given the significance of the games coming up.
The head coach retains the backing of his players, with the likes of Gary Cahill, Thibaut Courtois, N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta offering public shows of support. “Whatever is decided, the players have to take responsibility,” said Cahill. “The manager has done an absolutely unbelievable job. This is the worst I’ve felt for quite a while. Performance-wise at Watford I didn’t recognise us or myself. It was abysmal. We just need to keep strong. I’ve been here before at this club: it’s about staying calm. But it hurts a lot when you come off after a performance like that.”
Azpilicueta added: “If you see the training sessions we all fight hard. We are the first to be disappointed with the way the last two games went. We are getting penalised in the bad moments we are having in the game. It’s not a long period but in this league, which is so tough, you get punished as soon as you drop a bit.
“We know that we can do better and know that we can improve. As a player all I want is to come back to the training pitch as soon as possible, to work hard and to get into Monday’s game against West Brom, to get the three points and to get our confidence back.”
Conte’s signed improved terms at Chelsea over the summer but his deal only runs to 2019, with this season’s backdrop of discord fuelling suggestions that he will depart the club 12 months early. The likes of Luis Enrique and Carlo Ancelotti, who is living in London after his stint at Bayern Munich, would apparently only be interested in taking up the reins at Stamford Bridge at the end of the current campaign.