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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Conte and Chelsea facing grim reality check after successful first season for Italian

Manager of reigning Premier League champions has to recalibrate expectations after conceding title defence is impossible, while they are up against Barcelona in Champions League last 16

Antonio Conte is now focused on Chelsea's Uefa Champions League title tilt. David Klein / Reuters
Antonio Conte is now focused on Chelsea's Uefa Champions League title tilt. David Klein / Reuters

Perhaps the beginning of the end came when an unusually fired-up Marko Arnautovic advanced to score his first West Ham United goal, perhaps when none of Chelsea’s 19 shots went in.

Perhaps it came when, in the seventh pairing of another of Uefa’s interminably tedious draws, Chelsea were reunited with Barcelona.

There was a certain inevitability. Perhaps, from Antonio Conte’s perspective, a depressing inevitability.

Once Chelsea, unlike the other four English representatives, had failed to win their Uefa Champions League group, there was a 44 per cent chance of them facing Barcelona.

The strength of the Premier League’s top teams has come at a cost to Chelsea in continental competition.

It may do in England. The Italian departed the London Stadium on Saturday concluding that six into four will not go as he warned that Champions League qualification is not guaranteed.

One way or another, there could be consequences. Conte declared Chelsea’s title challenge over after their fourth league defeat of the season.

Only one manager in the Roman Abramovich era has survived a season at Stamford Bridge when he did not win the division.

In that, as in much else, Jose Mourinho is the exception, not the rule.

Conte has long seemed to deem his fifth league title in as many seasons of club management unlikely. His rhetoric appeared to be underpinned by pessimism even before he used Manchester City’s excellence to downplay Chelsea’s chances.

If he never specifically said as much, the sense was that Europe was a greater priority for him this season and that, with a smaller squad than he would have liked, it was impossible to challenge on all fronts. Even his new-look 3-5-1-1 formation appears configured with continental clashes in mind.

The Italian has given the impression of a man affronted by criticisms of his Champions League record. It was undistinguished at Juventus, but it was also a small sample size.

This season offered the chance to rectify that. The outstanding performance of Chelsea’s season, and a prime example of Conte’s skills as a strategist, was the away win at Atletico Madrid.

Perhaps he thought a week containing victory at the Wanda Metropolitano and a home defeat to Manchester City would be emblematic of their fortunes.

That tactical prowess deserted him in two games with Roma that produced a solitary point and when Conte’s substitutions amounted to attempts to undo errors in his initial selection. The Serie A side topped the group. Chelsea got Barcelona.

“Our reaction must be positive,” Conte said in the sort of comment that would have been phrased otherwise if it were automatically positive.

Instead, with Barcelona beckoning, an anti-climactic, last-16 exit from Europe could be on the cards. He could be denied the vindication he covets.

And so to Huddersfield Town on Tuesday in the league, with questions where a season - and a reign - is going.

Perhaps the campaign will conclude with the respectability of a top-four finish, perhaps with a Cup win, or a problematic descent into the Europa League places.

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“Now we must be focused to go game by game and do our best to fight for a place in the Champions League,” Conte said.

It is the sort of game Chelsea routinely won last season when they only dropped seven points against the bottom 14 teams.

Not this year, when they have lost to two of the bottom three, in Crystal Palace and West Ham, plus a Burnley side who were expected to be involved in the battle at the bottom.

“This league is very dangerous,” Conte said.

He made it seem harmless last season, when he benefited from continuity, an empty fixture list and a capacity to conjure the best season of their careers from Marcos Alonso, David Luiz and Victor Moses, but overachievement is not a permanent state of affairs.

Now it is an obstacle course. It depends on how many times Chelsea stumble until the end of the season.

And then, for club and manager who could go their separate ways, it poses the question of what comes after the end.

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