Finally! Antonio Conte’s painfully prolonged departure from Chelsea is complete. It took the Blues 55 days since the end of last season and the whole of 61 words to signal the end of Conte’s reign at Stamford Bridge. However, if some media reports in the United Kingdom are to be believed, Conte and Chelsea are still at loggerheads over his pay-off and a team of lawyers are working towards a solution.
Chelsea have spent almost the entire summer fretting over similar financial dealings related to the appointment of Maurizio Sarri — Conte’s successor — without much success. According to media reports, Sarri’s move from Napoli to Chelsea is very close to conclusion, but with Chelsea these days, nothing is a foregone conclusion until parties involved, put pen to paper.
Yet, despite the summer-long drama surrounding the managerial position, it’s one situation and only among many that is somewhat under Chelsea’s control. So even as they are about to clean this mess, a crisis is knocking on the door at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea are ten days away from their first pre-season game and less than a month from their Premier League opener. Yet, they have a manager’s position to fill. A new incoming manager in the summer isn’t a first for Chelsea, but the latest that they have appointed a new manager in the summer is Andre Villas Boas. He was placed in-charge on 22 June in 2011. Chelsea have passed that date by 21 days and yet the Blues aren’t in the position to announce their new manager.
It is a big blow for the Blues considering the campaign they endured last season. Even though Chelsea finished the season by winning the FA Cup at Wembley, their shoddy title defence that was marked by alarming levels of underperformance from some of their key players can’t be papered over.
With unhappy players, broken dressing room and a system that had its race run, Chelsea to an extent mirrored the performance of the 2015/16 season, that was a complete contrast to their remarkable campaign in 2016/17 when they lifted the Premier League title in record-breaking fashion.
The fears of possible departures of stars like Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Willian haven’t been eased by the uncertainty surrounding the managerial position. So the unpleasant possibility that a squad, that is in serious need of reinforcements may be further weakened, stares in Chelsea’s face as the new season approaches.
Chelsea’s transfer policy came under heavy criticism last season and was to a large extent responsible for them missing out on Champions League football. The Blues in an attempt to play hardball over transfer fees for its targets lost out on many, frustrating Conte to a breaking point. Summer signings Alvaro Morata, Tiemoue Bakayoko and David Zappacosta failed to make the expected impact. The Blues failed to correct their transfer policy in the January transfer window when the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were on offer. Chelsea, who once again were determined not to shell out the heavy transfer fees, ended up with Olivier Giroud, Ross Barkley and Emerson Palmieri. Giroud proved to be the only positive addition but was still far from what the team needed to compete in the Champions League or secure a top-four finish in the league.
Premier League clubs voted for the transfer window to be shut before the season begins from the 2018/19 campaign onwards. That will leave Sarri very few days to assess the squad and make additions to it. Moreover, the squad has been assembled keeping Conte’s system in mind. Sarri’s philosophy and playing style are a lot different from that of his Italian counterpart, leaving him a lot to do to get that bunch of players, successfully play his way.
Even though Chelsea are believed to be close to the signing of central midfielder Jorginho from Napoli, the Blues have failed to add to their squad so far this summer. Even if Jorginho’s move goes through, Chelsea will have plenty of problem areas to address, with the centre forward position being the primary concern.
With the World Cup players returning to the club late, Sarri has his hands tied. 22 days from now, Chelsea’s preparedness for the campaign will face an acid test against Manchester City when the Blues take on The Citizens in the Community Shield.
Chelsea are no longer the financial power of the last decade where they can price the best players away in the blink of an eye and empower Sarri before the season begins. Without Champions League football in the upcoming season, Chelsea will find pursuing their targets a tad more difficult. So it is unlikely that Chelsea will have a largely better squad compared to last season when they begin their campaign next month, let alone a bunch of players that fit into Sarri’s thinking. In fact, with uncertainty over the future of the likes of Hazard, Chelsea will be pleased if they can just keep their best players on board.
To restore itself as a force in the transfer market, Chelsea had a few long-term plans in the pipeline. The renovation of Stamford Bridge into a 60,000 seater stadium was at the forefront. After settling several disputes and making all parties reach an agreement, Chelsea pressing ahead with the plan of their new stadium was a victory in itself. But even that plan is temporarily suspended as owner Abramovich finds himself at the receiving end of the UK-Russia standoff.
Over the past six months, relations between Russia and UK have deteriorated. Both countries have expelled each other’s diplomats. Russia expressed disappointment over the search of their passenger plane at a UK airport and threatened with similar treatment to UK airlines. Abramovich, amidst the standoff, has been denied visa by the UK government. In reaction, the Chelsea owner has decided to pull the plug on Chelsea’s stadium plans until the situation gets resolved. Some reports also claimed that the standoff may affect Chelsea’s transfer budget this window.
So as Sarri inches closer to becoming the new Chelsea manager, the Blues have done little to distance themselves from the imminent crisis. The managerial hot seat at Stamford Bridge spares a manager few easy rides. Sarri will come with full knowledge of it. But the dark clouds over Stamford Bridge may still have few surprises in store for him. Those may not exactly be pleasant.
These are tense times at Chelsea. They find themselves at a crossroads again. The Blues have been here before and recovered, but this time, it will be a challenge even for Roman Abramovich's resilient Londoners.
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Updated Date: Jul 13, 2018 20:29:08 IST