From Premier League champions to mid-table strugglers, it will be a pivotal summer at Stamford Bridge for Conte and Abramovich.
It is difficult to determine which side of Chelsea has been more impressive to watch – the manner in which they swept past everyone that stood in their way with ominous ease last season as they stormed towards the league title, or the unprecedented downfall in which almost everything has gone wrong both on and off the pitch. 2015/2016 will hardly live long in the memory for a club that certainly will not be publishing a seasonal DVD, and are more likely to find a way to remove all traces of events from their history. However, it sometimes requires a period of adversity for a team to bounce back and show their true colours, and while Coral may include Chelsea amongst the favourites for the Premier League title next season, big changes may be required before fans and punters alike can feel confident about their chances.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where it has gone wrong for Chelsea in a forgettable season that nobody saw coming. The rapid decline from dominating the Premier League to looking extremely fragile and bereft of confidence came as a major surprise, and although Guus Hiddink deserves a lot of credit for steadying the ship, their season was effectively over months ago. The fact that Chelsea had to pull themselves out of a steep downward spiral that put them within perilous territory just outside the relegation zone is symbolic of how serious their plight has been. A lack of pre-season preparation and the Eva Carneiro fallout following the season-opening 2-2 draw at home to Swansea arguably began the domino effect which not only saw Jose Mourinho lose his job, but also resulted in Chelsea playing well below the standards they set during the title-winning season. Unfortunately for their fans, the latter has remained prominent throughout their current campaign, and despite a few standout performances which resembled the Chelsea of old, their recent 3-0 defeat against Manchester City smacked of a team that already had their minds on the upcoming European Championship or enjoying themselves at the beach this summer.
Antonio Conte will replace Hiddink in the hotseat after Euro 2016, with the former Juventus manager returning to club management in a position where he will be under immediate pressure to deliver. Winning three consecutive Serie A titles will count for nothing at a club where success is of paramount importance, but Conte, who has earned a reputation as a taskmaster, will simply not put up with performances that lack any sort of creativity, shape or effort. Chelsea fans will undoubtedly have one eye on how their new manager fares at Euro 2016; they will be able to follow their progress with Coral, and with several Euro 2016 tips pointing towards Italy among the darkhorses to go all the way in France this summer, he could arrive at Stamford Bridge with another impressive triumph on his CV.
There is no question that Conte will have to oversee major changes on and off the pitch, and although it remains to be seen how much leeway he is given in terms of bringing his own backroom staff in, the 46-year-old is believed to have already started a transfer shopping list. Conte will hope to receive a considerable transfer warchest from Abramovic in order to address the number of problems that have affected Chelsea this season, with their defensive vulnerability arguably the first port of call. Italian managers have a fine reputation for creating teams that carry out the basic forms of defending and become incredibly difficult to break down; it may require leaders at the heart of defence to be a commanding presence, but John Terry’s contract dispute may leave Conte short of quality in an area where Chelsea have been found wanting. Conte may prefer a different system to the high pressing and intensity game that proved hugely effective under Mourinho last season, but he will need to see a major improvement in effort from players who have let the club down this season. Furthermore, the lack of top quality options upfront has to be corrected, as Radamel Falcao, Alexandre Pato and Loic Remy have failed to replace Diego Costa on the occasions when he has been sidelined.
There is likely to be a lot of movement in and out of the doors at Stamford Bridge, but one star player who could depart for pastures new is Eden Hazard. It may be considered a blow for Chelsea to lose the Belgian international, but the 25-year-old has been a distinct shadow of the player who stole the show in the Premier League and was named the PFA Player of the Year for 2015; Conte is reportedly determined to hold onto Hazard, but the fact that he has looked distinctly uninterested and failed to score a single league goal may lead some to suggest that Chelsea should cash in now amidst interest from Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Hazard is certainly not the only one who has looked nothing like the player that was so instrumental in Chelsea’s title-winning season, but if Conte receives a mega-money bid that enables him to formulate a team that suits his philosophy and gets Chelsea back on the right track, then it may be a risk worth taking.