Antonio Conte exit rumours continue as Chelsea endure mixed season
It's the half way point in the season and time to take stock of the season so far at Chelsea.
Antonio Conte's men have been graded and we've picked a star man, flop, key question and prediction for the rest of the season.
Chelsea's task of defending the Premier League title looked difficult long before Manchester City raced clear at a historic pace. The fixture list pitted them against three of last season's top seven before the end of September and, crucially, also before key man Eden Hazard was fit enough to contribute after a broken ankle.
Compounding these difficulties, however, was Chelsea's scattergun approach to the summer transfer market that forced Conte to embark on the season with a squad lacking both in numbers and in health. Squad reinforcements eventually arrived in the form of Danny Drinkwater and Davide Zappacosta, but not before precious ground had been lost.
City's near-perfect campaign has thrown the flaws of their rivals into harsher relief, and Chelsea's stumbles have been particularly unflattering. The collective show of indiscipline in their opening day defeat against Burnley was startling, and limp losses away to Crystal Palace and West Ham came when their London rivals were rooted at the bottom of the table.
All in all, though, Conte's men remain on track for a top four finish and alive in every other competition, even if a rollercoaster Champions League group stage has put them on course for another two-legged battle with Barcelona in 2018.
Having collected virtually every domestic individual award on the way to the Premier League title in 2016/17, this season has only underlined N'Golo Kante's status as Chelsea's most important player.
In the tumultuous early weeks, with Nemanja Matic instead breaking up attacks for Manchester United, Tiemoue Bakayoko nowhere near fit and Drinkwater not yet signed, Kante shouldered a greater workload than ever alongside Cesc Fabregas in the heart of the Chelsea midfield.
Eventually the burden took its toll. A hamstring injury picked up on France duty ruled Kante out of all six of Chelsea's matches in October, during which they lost to Crystal Palace and dropped four points in two games against Roma, condemning themselves to runners-up spot in Champions League Group C.
Kante's importance had been amplified by his absence, and it was fitting that his return coincided with one of Chelsea's most convincing performances of the season in a 1-0 home victory over United.
Whether in a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2, Kante's relentless energy and his intelligence with and without the ball are the qualities that bring the "balance" Conte is always seeking, shielding Chelsea's defence while providing the foundation for Hazard to dominate in the final third.
A season that began in disgrace, with Kenedy sent home from Chelsea's preseason tour of the Far East for making derogatory comments about China on social media, is yet to even threaten a redemptive moment.
That in itself is quite an achievement when you consider that Conte has no other natural left footer who could realistically relieve Marcos Alonso. Kenedy has been kept around -- not least because of a lack of interest from other clubs in the summer -- but he has clearly not won his head coach's trust.
There have been starts in the Carabao Cup against Nottingham Forest and Everton, but Kenedy's involvement has not even extended to a single Premier League minute off the substitutes' bench. When it matters, he has often been left out of the match day squad entirely.
Chelsea are expected to make signing another left-sided player a top priority in January, when Kenedy is expected to leave on loan or permanently if a buyer can be found. Until then, Conte will continue to make do with Zappacosta, Cesar Azpilicueta and even Pedro as alternatives to Alonso.
Can Conte be convinced to stay?
From the moment he signed an upgraded rather than extended contract last summer in the midst of a troubled transfer window, the feeling around Stamford Bridge has been that this will be Conte's final season at Chelsea.
The Italian's frustration at the lack of reinforcements to a Premier League title-winning core -- and the more general division of power over recruitment -- has been obvious. If nothing else, his pointed praise of City's transfer strategy makes it clear he feels he has not been given the tools to compete.
But is it too late to convince Conte to stay? He is beloved by supporters and increasingly settled in London, having been joined by his wife and daughter this season. Chelsea's key players are still responding to him and next summer's transfer window could be the perfect chance to re-assert the club's ambition.
A determining factor will be whether a productive line of communication can be established in the coming months between Conte and the Chelsea hierarchy. Michael Emenalo's surprise departure was a blow to this process and how he is replaced -- and by whom -- could be crucial.
This is the question that will dominate the rest of Chelsea's season, and potentially affect the futures of key players such as Hazard and Thibaut Courtois. Aside from being immensely popular, Conte is an exceptional coach who would be hard to replace.
Premier League: 3rd.
Champions League: Quarterfinals.
FA Cup: Winners.
Carabao Cup: Semifinals.
A good rather than great second season in English football for Conte, but another trophy to celebrate at the end of a campaign in which Chelsea managed to re-establish themselves on the Champions League stage.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.