If Chelsea lose tonight, they won’t even be in the top four.
Knocked out of the League Cup at the semi-final stage, the Blues only have the FA Cup and Champions League to play for in terms of silverware. The reality, though, makes things look much worse: their top four spot is now very much in danger despite seeming nailed on for third place for the first half of the season, their European opponents are Barcelona because of Chelsea’s inability to finish above Roma in the group stage, and the FA Cup favourites are very much Manchester City. None of that is to say that Chelsea – and indeed Antonio Conte – can’t come away from this situation with their heads (and some silverware) held high at the end of the season. But the dominance of last year is very much gone.
That, in itself, shouldn’t be so surprising. After winning the league, most teams suffer some sort of tail-off, and it’s been even greater in Chelsea’s case as they’ve had to contend with European football, which is something they didn’t have last season.
And yet, that’s not been the problem this year: it’s more the toxic feel around the club at the moment. That part is surprising: from winning the title in his first season, Conte now seems as though he’s fighting a losing battle against the club’s board – something that almost seems like a rite of passage for Chelsea managers.
That’s the build-up to the West Brom game tonight: a defeat would put Chelsea in a position where sacking their manager in the build-up to their Champions League tie next week wouldn’t necessarily look out of place. Given their league form, their battle for fourth place and the importance of getting up for a European game that could end up defining the season, Conte could be the latest manager to fall at the Chelsea managerial graveyard that is West Bromwich Albion.
But as the Italian prepares his team tonight, it might not be the West Brom precedent that looks like the most important one for his own future as Chelsea manager.
When Andre Villas-Boas was sacked from his role at the club in 2012, it was after a defeat in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 round. At that point, not only were Chelsea in danger of dropping out of Europe early, but they were also sitting three points behind fourth place in the Premier League. A similar thing could well happen this season, if a first leg defeat to Barcelona and a loss this evening to West Brom put Chelsea in danger of seeing their season collapse in February. Defeat to Hull City in the FA Cup is unthinkable, though.
Then there’s the wildcard to consider, too. If we think Conte is under pressure to keep his job, one of the reasons for that is how close he seemed to walking out last summer. We may never know if the former Juventus and Italy boss actually did consider quitting, or if that was just media speculation, but whatever it was it perhaps colours our view of the situation right now.
If he was close to walking six months ago, though, what makes us think that he wouldn’t do so now? Or indeed jump ship if an attractive offer came his way?
That could well be on the cards sooner rather than later: on Wednesday night, European champions Real Madrid welcome Paris Saint-Germain to the Bernabeu. It will likely be a tight game and go down to the second leg, but the loser of the tie may well decide that a new manager is needed. But if there’s a heavy defeat for one team in the first leg, they could well make that decision immediately. Who’s to say Conte’s name wouldn’t be on either side’s list to replace their current man?
Ahead of tonight’s clash, Chelsea have won just one Premier League game in 2018. Another defeat would begin to make Conte’s position look fairly untenable, and will only get worse with a defeat to Barcelona.
And yet, anyone watching on and wondering if West Brom is the end for another Chelsea boss may well be disappointed, even in the unlikely event of a defeat to the bottom side, currently seven points from safety in the tightest relegation battle in recent memory. It might well be other events which spell the end of the Conte reign at Stamford Bridge.