Conte's troubles as Chelsea's miserable season draws to a close
As Chelsea's troubled season grinds on, the consolation for disappointed supporters is that the end is in sight. With six Premier League games remaining, Antonio Conte and his players are facing up to the harsh fact their title defence has been an unmitigated disaster. The only upside is that winning the FA Cup remains a possibility.
It was clear as far back as September when champions elect Manchester City played Chelsea off the park when winning at Stamford Bridge that it was going to be a hard slog for the club to retain the title. City's slender 1-0 margin of victory belied their superiority and gradually it became apparent that it wasn't just Pep Guardiola's side who had improved their game. One by one Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham all bypassed Chelsea, who head into this weekend's away game at Southampton sitting fifth in the table -- a distant 10 points behind Spurs who occupy the final Champions League qualification slot.
Southampton will battle desperately for the points as they bid to avoid relegation from the top flight while Chelsea are on a dreadful run of three defeats in their past five league matches. The fixture has an added element of intrigue to it as the sides will meet a week later at Wembley in the semifinal of the FA Cup and it will be interesting to gauge the levels of motivation of both sets of players in the two matches.
Retaining Premier League status has to be the key priority for new Saints boss Mark Hughes, while his counterpart Conte will view progress to the FA Cup final and winning the trophy as a route to salvaging his credibility as a manager which has taken plenty of knocks this season during the course of Chelsea's struggles.
Motivation, or apparent lack of it, is viewed by many Blues fans as being the root cause of Chelsea's slump in form which took a serious turn for the worse at the beginning of the year. It paved the way for lame exits in the Carabao Cup and Champions League as well as the slide out of the Premier League's top four.
Patience with Conte, who for months now has borne the brow-beaten look of a manager who has run his course with a club, has worn thin. The Italian is expected to leave at the end of the campaign regardless of whether or not the FA Cup is won. Given this scenario, it's small wonder that many of Chelsea's star players appear to have lost their focus -- distracted perhaps by the approaching World Cup and/or the prospect of a transfer elsewhere.
The biggest pain for supporters is the fact that previous teams had sufficient character to ride out the regular Chelsea managerial hiccups and raise their game sufficiently to at least ensure bitter rivals Tottenham never got the upper hand at Stamford Bridge. That may seem trite, but these are the things that matter most to the fans. The 3-1 home loss to Spurs a fortnight ago was a bitter pill to swallow and the 1-1 draw with West Ham was more bad medicine.
Earlier this week, Eden Hazard spoke about "trying everything to be in the top four" and winning the FA Cup while Cesar Azpilicueta claimed that winning the trophy would not save Chelsea's season. Two players clearly not singing from the same hymn sheet underlines the lack of unity that exists under Conte and it will be patently obvious in the upcoming matches against Southampton if this remains the case.
Irrespective of what the future may hold, a spirited performance in the league game with the Saints and victory in the FA Cup semifinal would work wonders for morale. With Manchester United or Tottenham lying in wait in the final, the opportunity to heal the hurt of what has gone before by winning the FA Cup is patently obvious. Azpilicueta may not think it will save Chelsea's season, but for the club's fans it would be a joyous occasion. Such a triumph will only be possible of course if Conte and his players banish what has gone before, erase any negative thoughts and imagine the first match with Southampton is the first of a new season. Getting off to a winning start is imperative.
What happens over the course of the next few weeks will go a long way to determining how supporters will remember Conte and the current Chelsea team. Spineless, overpaid mercenaries who gave up the ghost or battlers who realised the error of their ways and went out in a blaze of glory? Time will tell.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco