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
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
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