LONDON: Chelsea confirmed on Monday that Italy coach Antonio Conte will take charge at Stamford Bridge in time for next season. Here AFP Sports looks at five things the former Juventus boss must focus on to get the troubled Premier League club back on track:
Resolve Terry’s future
Hailed as “captain, leader, legend” on the banner hung by adoring fans at Stamford Bridge, John Terry’s credentials as a Chelsea icon and a major inspiration behind their success are well established, yet Conte will be faced with the thorny problem of potentially ending that two-decade love affair.
The 35-year-old defender dropped a bombshell in January when he announced he would be leaving at the end of the season because the club had told him he wouldn’t be given a contract extension.
But Chelsea have since insisted Terry’s fate will be decided solely by the new manager, leaving Conte to weigh up the benefits of keeping a figure of Terry’s experience and tenacity to create a smoother transition to the new era, while also pondering whether his fading form and declining influence in a dressing room now populated by younger and less deferential team-mates mean it would be wiser to sever ties with the polarising captain.
Rebuild the Eden project
Rewind 12 months and Eden Hazard appeared to have the world at his feet as he prepared to accept two Footballer of the Year awards and a Premier League winners’ medal while being feted by Jose Mourinho as the equal of superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Yet less than a year later, Hazard’s form has mysteriously collapsed to such an extent that many Chelsea fans would gladly wave farewell to the 25-year-old Belgian if he is sold in the close-season.
Hazard’s perceived sulkiness during this season’s collapse made him a target for Mourinho loyalists, who point out he has scored just twice for Chelsea this term, with his last Premier League goal coming in May 2015, but it is the lethargic nature of his performances that will be most alarming for Conte as he contemplates how to revitalise the talented playmaker.
Deal with serial offender Costa
Although Diego Costa’s goals fired Chelsea to the Premier League title in his debut season, he was already earning a reputation as the unapologetically snarling face of Jose Mourinho’s combative team and if anything he has become more moody in year two.
While his predatory instincts are unquestionable, the Spain striker has lost his focus time and again as he finds himself embroiled in needless flashpoints and, with the arch provocateur Mourinho content to encourage those tendencies, there is a growing belief Costa was allowed to run wild to the detriment of himself and his team.
Costa’s bear with a sore head impression has fuelled speculation that he is unhappy in England and would relish a move in the close-season so, with Paris Saint Germain and his old club Atletico Madrid said to be ready to offer him an escape route, Conte must decide whether to cut his losses or try to rehabilitate the serial offender.
Change the mood music
Regardless of who stays or goes, Conte should already know he must rebuild the squad’s shattered morale after what even the club were forced to admit was “palpable discord” between Mourinho and the players in the final months of his reign.
Mourinho’s abrasive approach irritated too many players and their response was to down tools, leading to his sacking in December, but even the more mild mannered Guus Hiddink, installed as interim boss, has only been able to coax a small improvement in the quality of the team’s performances.
It will be fascinating to see if Conte changes his own intense style to soothe the fragile Chelsea egos, especially since Andrea Pirlo, who played under him at Juventus, described his compatriot like this: “Even when we’re winning, Conte comes in and hurls (things) against the wall. His words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within you.”
Make up for a misspent youth
With owner Roman Abramovich reportedly unhappy with Chelsea’s failure to produce more homegrown talents despite his huge investment in the youth academy, Conte could earn some early praise from his employer by unearthing a gem or two among the youngsters learning their trade at the club’s leafy Cobham headquarters.
Incredibly, John Terry remains the last product of Chelsea’s youth system to successfully establish himself as a first-team regular with the Blues.
Conte would be wise to try to make the most of promising midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, 20, and other more untested but highly-rated youngsters like Charly Musonda, Lewis Baker and Dom Solanke.