Chance for Conte to lift FA Cup and end poor sea­son on high

▶ One more chal­lenge left for Ital­ian, who faces Chelsea exit and an open-ended fu­ture

The National - News - - SPORT - RICHARD JOLLY

Un­re­lated in­ci­dents can have con­se­quences. On Mon­day, Paris Saint-Ger­main ap­pointed Thomas Tuchel as their man­ager. On the same day, Roberto Mancini was con­firmed as the Italy man­ager.

Per­haps soon, Mikel Arteta will get the Arse­nal job, mean­ing Mas­si­m­il­iano Al­le­gri will stay at Ju­ven­tus. It is a man­age­rial ver­sion of mu­si­cal chairs that could leave one man stand­ing: An­to­nio Conte.

One of the world’s elite man­agers faces the prospect of be­ing un­em­ployed next sea­son.

If he had an es­cape strat­egy from Stam­ford Bridge, routes are be­ing blocked by his peers, tak­ing the posts he was tipped to fill or, in Al­le­gri’s case, re­main­ing in.

Mean­while, Conte’s reign at Chelsea ap­pears likely to end af­ter Satur­day’s FA Cup fi­nal. He has a year re­main­ing on his con­tract, but a frac­tious sea­son of un­der­achieve­ment scarcely sug­gests he will com­plete it.

His com­pa­triot Mancini may of­fer an un­wanted prece­dent: his re­la­tion­ship with his em­ploy­ers and his play­ers broke down as he failed to re­tain the ti­tle with Manch­ester City in 2013. He was dis­missed af­ter an FA Cup de­feat.

Should an­other Ital­ian exit in ig­no­min­ious fash­ion, Chelsea’s most dec­o­rated man­ager may be sat­is­fied. Conte was a rare man to take on Jose Mour­inho at his own game, coin­ing a memorable, deroga­tory sound­bite last sum­mer.

He warned of the dan­gers of a “Mour­inho sea­son”, ref­er­enc­ing Chelsea’s slide to 16th place af­ter their 2015 ti­tle win. Given a track record Mour­inho is in­creas­ingly fond of ref­er­enc­ing – two Uefa Cham­pi­ons Leagues, eight do­mes­tic league ti­tles – it was a stark rein­ter­pre­ta­tion to make him a by­word for fail­ure.

Their ex­changes have been vit­ri­olic at times this sea­son, es­pe­cially when Conte sug­gested the older man had se­nile de­men­tia, but the Por­tuguese is en­ti­tled to point out that, even with­out re­main­ing cham­pi­ons, there are dif­fer­ent types of Mour­inho sea­sons.

In the third year of his first spell at Stam­ford Bridge, his side fin­ished sec­ond and won both the 2007 FA and League Cups. It is Mour­inho’s only FA Cup, but he has been a League Cup spe­cial­ist.

It is an area where their CVs dif­fer dra­mat­i­cally. Conte has never won a ma­jor knock­out com­pe­ti­tion as a man­ager.

He lost last sea­son’s FA Cup fi­nal, get­ting out­wit­ted by Arsene Wenger as his side un­der­per­formed.

His side were beaten again by Arse­nal, al­beit on penal­ties, in Au­gust’s Com­mu­nity Shield.

It would have a cer­tain sym­bolic value if his sea­son was book­ended by Wem­b­ley de­feats. Cer­tainly it has the feel of Conte’s last stand.

The way his play­ers per­formed – or did not – in Sun­day’s 3-0 loss at New­cas­tle United, aban­don­ing all chance of a top-four fin­ish, sug­gests he is in­creas­ingly iso­lated, a man whose leav­ing will not be mourned. And yet Conte’s awk­ward sopho­more year has none­the­less been no­table for some sig­nif­i­cant tri­umphs in which he has been piv­otal.

Away wins at Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur and Atletico Madrid were two, Novem­ber’s 1-0 vic­tory over Mour­inho’s Manch­ester United an­other.

It fea­tured the 3-5-1-1 for­ma­tion Conte has adopted for ma­jor games, tin­ker­ing with his ti­tle-win­ning for­mula of 3-42-1. It was sealed by an Al­varo Mo­rata goal.

How­ever, Mo­rata is likely to be­gin the re­union on the bench. The floun­der­ing for­tunes of the £58 mil­lion (Dh288m) man in­di­cate that, as the two clubs pur­sued the same strik­ers, United got the bet­ter deal in buy­ing Romelu Lukaku.

Conte has lamented the loss of Ne­manja Matic, who will an­chor Mour­inho’s mid­field, while his Chelsea re­place­ment Tiemoue Bakayoko has rep­re­sented a ma­jor dis­ap­point­ment since his £40m move. Mour­inho got more of his pre­ferred re­cruits than Conte.

Trans­fers have formed the ba­sis of many of the Ital­ian’s gripes. Now it is hard to es­cape the feel­ing the next prominent de­par­ture from Stam­ford Bridge will be him. The difference is he has nowhere to go.

Yet if this is ar­rived­erci – good­bye – af­ter two sea­sons of dra­matic pro­gres­sion and bad-tem­pered re­gres­sion, it is with a chance to en­sure this kind of “Conte sea­son” ends on a high.

The way Chelsea per­formed – or did not – in the loss at New­cas­tle United sug­gests Conte is in­creas­ingly iso­lated

AFP

An­to­nio Conte, right, has made some deroga­tory com­ments against Jose Mour­inho, but Conte has never won any ma­jor knock­out com­pe­ti­tion while Mour­inho boasts many ti­tles on his CV as he seeks to add a sec­ond FA Cup to his 2006/07 ti­tle with Chelsea

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