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Crisis time at Chelsea puts spotlight on coach Conte

Chelsea's Italian head coach Antonio Conte gets angry during Chelsea’s 3-3 draw against Roma at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. (AFP)
LONDON: Antonio Conte’s anger was clear as he headed down the tunnel after Chelsea’s 3-3 draw with Roma on Wednesday.
Having lost back-to-back league games — forgivably, to Manchester City, rather less so to Crystal Palace — the Champions League fixture against Roma had looked like getting their season back on track when they went 2-0 up in the first half. By the end of a 3-3 draw, though, it had been just another entry in the growing dossier of evidence that Chelsea’s season is spinning out of control. Should they lose at home to Watford today it will be only the second time they have lost three league matches in a row since 1999. The highly impressive 2-1 win away to Atletico Madrid was less than a month ago, but it feels like a lifetime.
That Conte foresaw these problems perhaps only makes them all the more frustrating. After a 2-1 friendly defeat to Inter at the end of July, he warned of the danger of another “Mourinho season” if there wasn’t significant recruitment. It’s not quite as bad as Mourinho’s final season at Stamford Bridge yet — with 13 points from eight games, Chelsea are five points better off — but there are similarities.
It was easy then to blame Jose Mourinho. After all, his abrasive personality has regularly caused relationships to fray in his third year at clubs. Conte, similarly, has to take at least some of the blame here. His intensity, perhaps, becomes stifling with time, the constant touchline antics are irritating when results are poor. Casualties are stacking up — N’Golo Kante (pictured) and Victor Moses have hamstring problems while David Luiz and Tiemoue Bakayoko picked up calf and groin injuries respectively — with reports in The Times suggesting Chelsea players blame the relentlessness of Conte’s training schedule, which has changed very little from last year despite the club now having Champions League games to worry about.
But failure rarely has a single father. The injuries have placed strain on a squad that looked slender even last season. Chelsea, it’s true, spent in the region of £180 million ($237 million) in the summer to bring in Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater, Antonio Rudiger, Davide Zappacosta and Willy Caballero, but their net spent was barely £3 million.
Out went Diego Costa, Nemanja Matic, Nathan Ake, Asmir Begovic, Nathaniel Chalobah and John Terry. The squad may be stronger now than it was a year ago, but it is no deeper.
Again, Conte is not blameless. His cursory text to Diego Costa telling him he was no longer wanted, robbed him of an asset prematurely.
Perhaps Costa’s attitude — and his form had dipped from January — meant he was seen as more trouble than he was worth, but the knowledge he was leaving weakened Chelsea’s negotiating position when signing another striker.
But the bulk of the responsibility lies with the same transfer committee Mourinho railed against — Marina Granovskaia, Michael Emenalo and Eugene Tenenbaum. They were beaten to Romelu Lukaku by Manchester United, to Fernando Llorente by Tottenham, to Leonardo Bonucci by AC Milan and to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain by Liverpool, while Ross Barkley decided against joining at the last minute. That is an astonishing run of failure.
With other issues, responsibility is harder to establish. Conte has insisted publicly that he was opposed to the sale of Matic but that is not necessarily how others at the club saw it. Certainly with hindsight, however good the £40 million fee was, letting him leave for a direct rival looks a mistake. Then there’s the issue of all the young players sent out on loan. If Conte has as little faith in Michy Batshuayi as he clearly does, why send Tammy Abraham to Swansea?
The 20-year-old already has four league goals this season. He’s not the only one: 33 Chelsea players have been loaned out, five of them to Premier League clubs. Could none of them at least have taken some of the strain off more senior players?
Chelsea have been rightly praised in recent years for their ability to command high fees for unwanted players — Diego Costa’s £57 million fee the latest example of that. But the suspicion is that value has taken the place of team-building and, however much blame must be attached to Conte, the recurrence of at least some of the problems of two years ago means the question has to be asked of whether the club really is supporting its managers as it should.

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