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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Antonio Conte faces calm of Hull before storm of Barcelona

The Chelsea manager dismissed talk of his position ahead of FA Cup fifth-round match against a patched-up Hull side facing threat of a second relegation in as many seasons

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte told a news conference “I think we need to stop about this topic," when asked about his future at the club. “Every week we talk about it.” His side face Hull City in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday. David Klein / Reuters
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte told a news conference “I think we need to stop about this topic," when asked about his future at the club. “Every week we talk about it.” His side face Hull City in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday. David Klein / Reuters

It would look a defining period in any season. In this, with the sense of palpable discord between manager and club, with the possibility all hope of silverware could be ended imminently and the possibility an out-of-form Chelsea will slide out of the top four, it assumes still greater proportions. The fixture list reads: Hull City, Barcelona, Manchester United, Manchester City.

Hull look the odd one out, the club potentially poised for a precipitous drop into League One seeming to offer a lull before the storm represented by the Spanish league leaders and the Premier League’s top two. Yet the FA Cup offers Chelsea’s best chance of a trophy and, while the sense of crisis was eased by Monday’s win over West Bromwich Albion, defeats to Bournemouth and Watford showed Chelsea are not immune to shocks. Antonio Conte can expect more talk about his position, regardless of the result.

“I think we need to stop about this topic," he said at a news conference on Thursday. “Every week we talk about it.”

The news conference contained more discussion of players coming in than a manager seemingly going out. Four days before Barcelona beckon, Conte will rest some of his premier players. He will also be without Tiemoue Bakayoko, who has served a suspension but is now injured, and the sidelined pair of David Luiz and Ross Barkley.

There may be opportunities for the versatile Ethan Ampadu and the forward Callum Hudson-Odoi, both precocious 17 year olds. “We are talking about two of the best players in our academy,” Conte said. Trevoh Chalobah, brother of Nathaniel, Kyle Scott and Dujon Sterling will also come into contention. “Chelsea’s future is brilliant with these players,” Conte said.

Other arrivals came at a greater cost and with more experience. There will be a first outing for Emerson Palmieri, the January addition from Roma who is designed to resolve the problematic reserve left-back role. Chelsea have been well served by their first choices, whether Cesar Azpilicueta or Marcos Alonso, in recent years, but understudies have come and gone, not justifying price tags. Filipe Luis and Baba Rahman are among those signed for considerable sums but who exited in anti-climax.

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In attack, Conte has another pedigree deputy. He could give the triple FA Cup winner Olivier Giroud a third appearance after his move from Arsenal. The alternative is to start a fit-again Alvaro Morata for the first time since January 13. “A great team must have competition in every position,” Conte said. “Giroud is a good option. He’s very strong and powerful. He can help us for the rest of the season.”

A manager who came intent on playing 4-2-4 has become wedded to one-striker systems but Giroud and Morata may play together. “It could happen,” Conte said. “Now I think it is too soon to answer.”

Whichever forward is preferred ought to fancy his chances of piercing a makeshift defence. Hull initially benefited from former manager Leonid Slutsky’s close relationship with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Yet the fact that they have borrowed three defenders from Stamford Bridge means all are cup-tied and denied a meaningful return. Two of them, Michael Hector and Ola Aina, started Saturday’s win at Nottingham Forest. “Obviously that disrupts us,” said manager Nigel Adkins. His squad is further depleted by injuries and suspensions and, if Michael Dawson is not passed fit then the January signing Angus MacDonald will be the only recognised senior centre-back.

If the list of absentees bodes badly, so does history. Hull have visited Stamford Bridge 21 times since 1905 and never won. The chances of ending a 113-year wait seem remote. Judgment day for Conte will probably be postponed. But, given Chelsea’s upcoming games, not for very long.