With Chelsea’s reign as Premier League champions all but over, it’s fitting Antonio Conte approaches that dispiriting conclusion in the same tetchy mood he began their doomed title defence.
Blues boss Conte has cut a frustrated figure from the moment he sagely warned of a difficult season in store during Chelsea’s pre-season tour.
Irritated by the failure of Chelsea’s hierarchy to land his top transfer targets and driven to distraction by his public feud with Diego Costa — the striker he cast into exile before selling him to Atletico Madrid — Conte wasted no opportunity to make it clear there was trouble ahead.
The former Juventus coach was proved correct as Chelsea have laboured so badly that they go into Sunday’s London derby against West Ham on the brink of missing out on a top four finish.
Last weekend’s defeat against fourth placed Tottenham left fifth placed Chelsea eight points adrift of the positions that bring qualification for next season’s Champions League.
With only seven games remaining, Conte’s two-year reign at Stamford Bridge looks set to finish with his departure at the end of the season, with widespread reports Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is considering moves for ex-Barcelona boss Luis Enrique and Juventus chief Max Allegri.
Gianluca Vialli, a former Chelsea manager and Juventus team-mate of Conte’s, claims his old friend can’t wait to leave the west London club after growing tired of his lack of influence on the squad’s make-up.
But Conte has repeatedly refused to be drawn on talk of his future and, asked about Vialli’s comments on Friday, he said: “It is not true. Gianluca is a friend but I’m not talking with him for one year, maybe.
“It’s very difficult for me but since this season I’m listening to a lot of speculation about my future, but the only truth is I am committed for this club.
“I have a contract for this club, I’m working very hard for this club.
“This is the only truth. The other speculation is not true.”
Chelsea have managed just five wins out of 19 in all competitions since the turn of the year, sparking fresh rumours that Conte’s intense personality and demanding training style have lost him the support of several key players.
Their lacklustre performance in Chelsea’s first home defeat to Tottenham for 28 years hardly erased that impression.
“For sure we must be realistic. This defeat was a bad defeat for us. We had the opportunity to reduce the gap to Tottenham,” said Conte.
“We have to try to do everything to try to continue, to fight for a top-four place. It won’t be easy. We have to try to give all ourselves.
“We must show pride, desire, a will to fight until the end this season. This must be our target now.”
West Ham are five points above the relegation zone following last weekend’s crucial win over Southampton.
David Moyes’ side beat Chelsea earlier this season and the Hammers boss is eyeing a repeat.
“We haven’t got enough points to be safe yet,” he said.
“It was a really big win for us (against Chelsea), for the team, for the club, it gave us all a boost.
“I hope lightning can strike twice and we can do it again.” – Agence France-Presse