Soccer | PREMIER REPORT

Clock ticking on Conte’s time with Chelsea

by Christopher Davies

“Antonio Conte has left his post as head coach of Chelsea. The club would like to thank him for his contribution and wish him well for the future.”

No, not a Japan Times exclusive, but a paragraph that will be coming your way in the coming months, maybe even weeks. Chelsea is in a mess on the field and off it. Yes, it is third in the Premier League only three points behind Manchester United and has lost only one of its last 16 Premier League games (though five draws in the last seven games in all competitions paints a more accurate picture of the club’s form).

Being tucked in behind the second-place team would usually be encouraging, but this season is unlike any other with record-breaking Manchester City 15 points ahead of Chelsea with 14 matches remaining. Distant runner-up is the best the chasing pack can hope for which was not what Roman Abramovich had in mind last August. Yes, Chelsea is still in the F.A. Cup and plays Newcastle United at home on Sunday.

And yes, it is still in the Champions League, though the bad news is that Barcelona is the next opponent.

Chelsea reached a low point in the 2-1 League Cup semifinal defeat by Arsenal on Wednesday. Apart from Eden Hazard and, briefly before his injury Willian, Chelsea was second-best in virtually every respect, despite the narrow score line, to an Arsenal team which has hardly been a magnet for praise this season.

These days, Antonio Conte looks a tortured soul who has forgotten the art of smiling. When asked a question, he invariably thinks for five seconds before starting his answer because Conte is not a man given to sound-bites. And what he has been saying lately will not have impressed Abramovich, a man who sacked Carlo Ancelotti after he had won the Double in his first season and who has had 12 managers in 15 years.

Conte has complained about the club’s recruitment policy, effectively saying he has no input on who Chelsea bought, though that is different to what I am told. The Italian has constantly moaned that Chelsea’s squad “is too thin” yet since last summer it has spent £217 million on big-name signings — Antonio Rudiger (£34m), Tiemoue Bakayoko (£40m), Alvaro Morata (£70m), David Zappacosta (£23m), Danny Drinkwater (£35m) and Ross Barkley £15m). While Drinkwater and Barkley are recent arrivals, none of the others has made a significant impact and it is impossible to believe the club bought the players without consulting Conte.

Last season, when Chelsea won the title, it did not have the added pressure of European football, but the only players of note who left were Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic. If Chelsea’s squad is thin, it is lacking quality rather than quantity.

“Willian’s injury (against Arsenal) was decisive because we don’t have many players to make substitutions,”said Conte which must have been truly inspirational to Barkley who replaced the Brazilian. In fact, Chelsea’s six outfield substitutes at Emirates Stadium cost£150 million.

The head coach also said Chelsea can no longer compete financially with the Manchester clubs, a staggering remark considering that it was Abramovich, when he assumed control in 2003 who raised the money stakes and moved former Arsenal vice chairman David Dein to memorably say: “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us.”

Last season, Conte was showered in plaudits — he was the manager Chelsea had been waiting for. That was then. With expectations high at Stamford Bridge more was expected this time around than a possible F.A. Cup triumph (the Champions League is surely not even in Conte’s realistic dreams).

Apart from his squad and the lack of money, the past few months have also seen Conte bleating about his too many fixtures, referees and even video assistant referees, while engaging in a petty war of words with Jose Mourinho. It will have been noted by Abramovich, the silent sacker who never stands for criticism from his managers.

“I have another year of (my) contract with this club,” Conte said. “But as you know very well everything is possible. In one moment you stay here, in another moment another person replaces you in your job.”

With Abramovich’s finger on the trigger, it is likely to be the latter, when rather than if.

Neville off on the wrong foot

It isn’t the sexist tweets that have raised eyebrows — male and female — about Phil Neville’s appointment as manager of the England women’s team. True, some of Neville’s tweets from recent years dug up by keyboard warriors, such as “Relax, I’m back chilled — just battered the wife!!! Feel better now!” or “U women of (sic) always wanted equality until it comes to paying the bills #hypocrites” cross the line from blokey banter to offensive.

Given that his predecessor, Mark Sampson, was sacked for “inappropriate behavior” there is a heightened awareness of political correctness with the post.

Neville is one of football’s nice guys, charming company,helpful to the media and someone who made the absolute most of what he had to become a favorite with Manchester United and England. While his tweets, for which he has apologized, cannot be condoned, Neville has enough goodwill in the bank to deserve no more than a brief spell on the naughty step.

Whether or not the Football Association knew about Neville’s tweets depends on who you believe, but my source said the governing body did not which is embarrassing for the ruling body.

The criticism of the F.A.’s appointment is because being nice or popular is not a job qualification. Neville has zero experience of managing unless you include the time he and Paul Scholes took charge of Salford City, which they co-own, in a 2-1 home win over Kendal Town in the National League North, the sixth tier of English football three years ago.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.