Conte in spotlight as Chelsea search for inspiration
Off the field, business is booming at Stamford Bridge following Chelsea’s club record kit deal with Nike that will see the American sportswear giants pay the Blues a reported £60 million ($73 million, 66 million euros) per season for the next 15 years.
But, while Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich counts the cash, down at the club’s Cobham training ground, Blues boss Conte is plotting a way to stay in the Russian’s favour after a curious start to his reign.
The 47-year-old only arrived on a three-year contract in the close-season, yet on Thursday two bookmakers suspended betting on Conte being sacked amid a flurry of big wagers on his departure.
When Chelsea kicked off the Conte era with three successive league victories that scenario seemed impossible.
However, lacklustre defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal have put pressure on the former Italy and Juventus coach to prove he can mount a credible title challenge in his first season in England.
Even by Abramovich’s ruthless standards, it would be crazy to axe Conte so soon and Chelsea have given no indication the Italian is on the way out.
Yet his frustration in the transfer market, where Conte was forced to make panic buys for defenders David Luiz and Marcos Alonso after missing out on his top targets, was the first sign it might not be all plain sailing at a club notorious for behind the scenes politicking that can make a manger’s life difficult.
Conte was already well aware of the task facing him as he tries to rebuild a squad that underachieved badly last season, costing Jose Mourinho his job in the process.
Hampered by injuries to key players, Conte’s renovations remain very much a work in progress and seventh placed Chelsea already trail five points behind leaders Manchester City.
– Bad patch –
A 2-0 win at Hull in Chelsea’s last match before the international break was notable for the Italian’s switch to a system that deployed three central defenders — the formation he used successfully with Italy — and it produced only the second clean-sheet of the season for the west Londoners.
With John Terry back in training after an ankle injury, Conte could bring in the veteran defender alongside two of Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta.
Blues goalkeeper Asmir Begovic believes Terry’s absence was a major factor in Chelsea’s bad patch and he expects the club captain to return to the line-up.
“It’s always good to have JT around. He’s our captain and he’s still a fantastic player, so whenever he’s available and fit it’s positive for us,” Begovic said.
“His leadership is key for us. The fact is that over the last month or so we’ve had a lot of changes, players have come in and out with injuries, and maybe that has disrupted things for us a little bit.”
Chelsea winger Willian is expected to be absent on compassionate leave following the death of his mother, which could mean a recall for Oscar or Cesc Fabregas, who scored twice when the Blues won 4-2 at Leicester in the League Cup last month.
With only two wins from their seven league matches, Leicester appear to be suffering a prolonged hangover from their fairytale title triumph.
Claudio Ranieri’s side would become the first English champions to lose their opening four away games of the season since Blackburn in 1995-96 if they are beaten by Chelsea.
And Ranieri is at a loss to explain his team’s away-day blues.
“It is difficult to say why,” Ranieri said. “In the first match we were unlucky as we created chances.
“The other two matches we deserved to lose, Liverpool and Manchester were better than us.”