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 By Mark Worrall

Antonio Conte must restore Chelsea to Champions League after dire season

Chelsea's title defence in 2015-16 was the worst in Premier League history, the Blues eventually finishing 10th following a wretched season.

Antonio Conte has been charged with getting them back on track. Here's a look ahead to Chelsea's 2016-17 campaign.

At a glance

Another season, another high-flying manager in the Stamford Bridge hot-seat trying to satisfy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's unquenchable thirst for silverware.

Quick predictions

Premier League: ​3rd
FA Cup: Winners
League Cup: Quarterfinals

Transfer business

The swift signing of Leicester City midfield dynamo N'Golo Kante for £30 million is one of the best pieces of transfer business done by any Premier League club this summer, but Chelsea's failure to bolster their defence in time for the start of the new campaign could be a problem as Conte is forced to rely on a backline which underperformed badly last season.

Since the Italian was appointed in April, there has been plenty of speculation specifically regarding centre-backs, but with long-term target John Stones signing for Manchester City and little progress made elsewhere, the Chelsea board's hit-and-miss negotiating skills for targets are hamstringing their lofty ambitions.

Further evidence of haphazardness and the Blues' glaring inability to prioritise player requirements has come this summer in the form of comparatively unknown striker Michy Batshuayi. Spending £33m seemed a lot of money to pay for the 22-year-old Belgium international, who will be vying for a place up front with Diego Costa and Bertrand Traore. Of course, should he fire Chelsea to glory then Batshuayi could prove to be a shrewd acquisition, but there's no guarantee -- which goes some way to explaining the club's ongoing pursuit of Romelu Lukaku.

Lukaku's return to the Bridge for an astronomical fee likely to be more than double the £28m received from Everton for his services two years ago would see critics pour scorn on the club's transfer strategy (if indeed there is one) particularly if they fail to bring in a much-needed world class defender and Chelsea suffer as a result.

Chelsea signed N'Golo Kante earlier in the summer but have yet to bolster their defence.

Key questions

The Premier League has never been as competitive. Last season, Leicester City and Tottenham broke the traditional top four mould which regularly comprised Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal. The Blues finished a calamitous 10th, and the key question is whether Conte can propel the club back up the table.

Without hesitation the answer has to be yes -- for the sake of job security he has to -- but how far, and what is deemed acceptable, is open to conjecture. Champions League qualification as a minimum will be the primary objective, but it won't be easy.

The pressure to succeed will be intense. The Italian is clearly a passionate man with a temperament that could combust in the heat of the moment. Questionable refereeing decisions, a dressing room with a reputation for stroppiness when things aren't going right and the close scrutiny of Abramovich could make for an incandescent cocktail -- how will Conte cope with these potential challenges?

The first three months of the season are going to be critical. A decent start will breed confidence and belief that Conte can restore Chelsea's fortunes. Abramovich is clearly prepared to back his new manager in the transfer market, but time is getting tight before the summer window closes.

At present, there is the real possibility the Blues will commence the campaign with the same backline of Cesar Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Gary Cahill that was exposed time and again at the start of last season. How will they fare this time around? With quality defensive reinforcements nowhere in sight, it has to be a worry.

Potential pitfalls

The main obstacle Chelsea face is the same every season. Abramovich's unbridled impatience and expectation of success has ensured the procession of managers he has hired since he bought the club in 2003 have had little time to get things right. If Conte endures a poor start, his reign as boss could be over in the blink of an eye.

A lack of European competition could prove problematic. Historically, the group stage games have provided an even mix of feeble opposition, thereby providing the opportunity for the manager to rotate lineups and interchange tactics. Kurt Zouma is the primary recent example of a squad player whose path to Chelsea's first team was expedited via sterling performances in the Champions League.

Antonio Conte is the latest man to try and deliver the successful, stylish football Roman Abramovich craves.

One to watch 

Will 2016/17 finally be the campaign when a product of Chelsea's academy breaks through to provide the first established, regular homegrown player since John Terry imposed himself on the first team? Earlier this year, opportunities came the way of midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek and striker Bertrand Traore and both players featured regularly in Conte's early preseason lineups.

With the Italian seemingly looking to convert Loftus-Cheek into a forward, the 20-year old will be in competition not only with Traore, also 20, but big money summer acquisition Batshuayi and possibly Diego Costa should he remain at the Bridge or indeed Lukaku should he return.

Even playing with two up front, with a lack of European competition, game-time for the youngsters is likely to be limited, meaning the academy players' dreams will remain frustratingly unfulfilled.

Batshuayi, whose 17 Ligue 1 goals for Marseille last season propelled him into the limelight, has a couple of years' experience over Loftus-Cheek and Traore and will undoubtedly benefit from playing in front of international teammate Eden Hazard.

If Chelsea make a positive start to the campaign and Batshuayi finds the net regularly, it's hard to see Conte chopping and changing his team -- with the exception of injuries, there would be no reason to do so. It's a fantastic opportunity for the Belgian, who appears to have settled in well and looks ideally suited both in temperament and physique to cope with the rigours of the Premier League.

Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco


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