Uncertain times at Chelsea

Paul Mariner reacts to the rumours of Inter Milan possibly luring Antonio Conte away from Chelsea in the summer.
The ESPN FC panel share their thoughts on the rumours that Chelsea are looking to sign Alexis Sanchez this summer.
The FC crew question whether anyone can overtake N’Golo Kante in the running for PFA Player of the Year.
Gab Marcotti dissects the rumours linking Eden Hazard with a summer move from Chelsea to Real Madrid.
Chelsea’s Gary Cahill says he’s back to his best after an underwhelming campaign last year.

Roman Abramovich will almost certainly know by now that Inter Milan are growing increasingly confident in their chances of luring Chelsea manager Antonio Conte to the San Siro this summer.

Abramovich, Chelsea’s billionaire owner, is nothing if not well-connected, and the determination of the Suning Holdings Group, Inter’s Chinese owners, to deliver a statement of intent by appointing Conte is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by the Stamford Bridge hierarchy.

Sources have told ESPN FC that Inter are serious in their pursuit of Conte and believe they can take advantage of the perfect storm which is developing at Chelsea in order to tempt the former Italy and Juventus coach back to Serie A.

They are aware that Conte’s family have not joined him in London and the difficulties that has created for the 47-year-old, while the uncertainty surrounding the Chelsea futures of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois is another issue that is casting a shadow over the club’s immediate future.

And Suning also believe that, with Abramovich’s track record for impatience with managers who fail to meet his high expectations, Conte may sense that a Premier League title in his first season — and possibly also an FA Cup — could leave a high watermark which would be hugely difficult to match going forward leaving Inter, with the finances and ambition to regain their super-club status, a much more appealing option.

Despite Suning’s determination, though, the ball is firmly in Abramovich’s court.

The Russian cannot wave a magic wand to solve Conte’s family situation by finding a cure for homesickness — “If you ask me if my family is missing me, honestly, I have to say yes, they are,” Conte said recently. “It’s not easy to stay alone and live this experience with my family still in Italy.”

But every football issue that threatens to cloud Conte’s decision on his future can be dealt with by Abramovich and, with Chelsea powering towards the title, there is no time like the present for those problems to be resolved.

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte is on course to win the Premier League title in his first season in England.

Having agreed a three-year contract worth a reported £5 million-a-year when he took charge of Chelsea in the summer of 2016, Conte can expect to be rewarded with a more lucrative and long-term deal, but a new contract is not the priority for the Italian.

Ensuring he has a squad capable of living up to Abramovich’s demands next season is the key, and that revolves around pivotal players staying at the club and top-class signings arriving to improve the squad.

Conte is aware that next season will be a totally different challenge for the team, with a welcome return to the Champions League increasing the workload on his playing squad.

And because of Abramovich’s desire for success at the highest level, Conte will be expected to mount a sustained assault on the Champions League.

That task would be made so much more difficult, though, if any of Costa, Hazard or Courtois were allowed to leave the club this summer.

Atletico Madrid, likely to be seeking a replacement for Antoine Griezmann, will push hard to re-sign Costa, while Real Madrid’s interest in Hazard will not go away.

Real are also big admirers of goalkeeper Courtois, who has ties to Madrid following his loan spell at Atletico, and the Belgium international is a target to replace Keylor Navas at the Bernabeu.

If Chelsea win the title and see one, two or three of their key players leave, where will it leave Conte’s plans?

Eden Hazard, left, and Diego Costa, right, are two Chelsea stars regularly linked with Chelsea exits.

Will Abramovich flex his financial muscle by making big-money moves for the likes of Griezmann, Alexis Sanchez and Monaco midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko to bolster the squad or will Conte instead have to work with players and targets identified by technical director Michael Emenalo?

Conte will demand the former and urge the club to capitalise on their position of strength, pointing to the likely spending of Manchester United and Manchester City this summer, as well as the need to be bigger and better to compete in the Champions League.

But will Abramovich be moved or will he regard Conte as being as dispensable as the other managers that have been cast aside during his 14 years as Chelsea owner?

Carlo Ancelotti was sacked less than a year after winning the Premier League and FA Cup Double, Jose Mourinho gone within six months of winning the title and Roberto Di Matteo, the man who ended Chelsea’s wait for Champions League glory, dismissed just four months into the season following the European Cup win.

With Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone potentially available this summer, Conte will know that Abramovich will have high-profile alternatives if he pushes too hard to get what he wants.

But with Chelsea on the verge of being crowned champions, the future is beginning to appear worryingly uncertain at Stamford Bridge.

Will they hold onto their best players, can they keep their hugely popular manager and are they prepared to spend as much as their rivals to consolidate their position?

It is because there are so many unanswered questions that Inter are beginning to believe they can persuade Conte to jump ship and head to Milan.

So the next move is Abramovich’s, and it is he who has Chelsea’s future in his hands.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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