Two games left to define Chelsea’s future
FROM the moment Antonio Conte bemoaned his club's pre-season recruitment, things look suspiciously like going awkwardly south for Chelsea this season.
He fell out with Diego Costa, a striker who pulled points for the Blues in their title winning season in games they might not necessarily have deserved it.
It was a massive gamble, and one has to wonder if Costa, with his hilarious trolling of the Chelsea boss during the Barcelona game, has had the last laugh in that decision.
He landed Alvaro Morata, who has not matched Costa's output, but was also left with 'alternative' additions - Danny Drinkwater, Davide Zappacosta and Tiémoué Bakayoko - to bolster his squad for the Champions League/title defence double act.
Things stabilised after the toxicity of an opening day loss at home to Burnley, but ever since a slip-up against Roma that saw the side finish runners up in their Champions League group, there's been a sense that the defending champions have been sleepwalking to the end of another managerial era under Roman Abramovich.
Conte is still talking firmly about his commitment to the cause, but the truth is, if he isn't a dead man walking already, then the next two games could severely determine his fate.
After being eliminated by Barcelona to end their European campaign, Chelsea go to Leicester for an FA Cup clash, before hosting Tottenham in a veritable top-four 'six pointer' in the bid to peg back the four point distance to Liverpool, and five point gap to Tottenham, to avoid being bundled out of the Champions League spots for the second time in three years.
They've lost four of their past six games to accelerate their slip outside the CL spots.
Truth is, the level of the performance in the tie against Barcelona proves Conte has not lost the dressing room like Jose Mourinho did in his ill-fated title defence two seasons ago.
Indeed, some poor individual decision making, and the sheer world class difference Lionel Messi provides, went a long way to determining this tie.
"It is a pity. At the same time, I must be honest. I must be very proud about my players - they gave everything and we have to continue in this way, with this will to fight and desire to fight together," Conte said.
"We were a bit unlucky if you consider the two legs. We are showing we can play in both ways. The first leg, defensively we were more compact, and only after our mistake they scored. Tonight, they scored more but we didn't deserve this result."
Conte's ultra conservative streak, which was punished by Manchester City in the league recently, was ruthlessly exposed by Messi within three minutes at Camp Nou.
Straight off the kick-off, they retreated deep, with five along the backline, and just Olivier Giroud up top - but still within his own half.
Ironically, Messi's early goal forced the PL side to change their tune and, Willian in particular, showed this is no abject Chelsea side at all.
Indeed, the narrative after this game focused more on the fact that Chelsea did not disgrace themselves at all, and Conte is not facing the same examinations that Mourinho did a day earlier.
But even if Chelsea negotiate these next two matches and kick on, the bigger question is: does Conte, a mooted contender for the vacant Italian post, want to remain there despite a contract through until 2019?
Is he up for another fight with the board over transfers?
You sense another off-season of upheaval is destined for Chelsea.