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Football: What's gone wrong at Chelsea?
[LONDON] Chelsea's troubled season hit a new low on Monday as the Premier League champions crashed to a 4-1 defeat at Watford that heaped fresh pressure on beleaguered boss Antonio Conte.
Less than a year after being hailed as the mastermind of Chelsea's title triumph, Conte appears destined to become the latest high-profile boss to pay the price for failing to satisfy ruthless Blues owner Roman Abramovich.
With fourth-placed Chelsea trailing 19 points behind leaders Manchester City, Abramovich is reported to be considering replacements for Conte, with former Barcelona coach Luis Enrique strongly linked with the job.
Conte loses the plot
The champagne corks had barely finished popping at the end of Chelsea's title celebrations in May before Conte bizarrely lost his cool and set off down a path that now looks certain to end with his exit.
Misjudging his power base, Conte felt winning the league should allow him much more say in who came and went from his squad - and first in his sights was notorious malcontent Diego Costa.
Infuriated by Costa's mood swings and an attempt to engineer a move to China, Conte decided to sell the Spain striker even though his goals had been instrumental in the title success.
But he hadn't reckoned on Costa going public with a text message from Conte telling him he is not in his plans for next season, a move that prompted the Chelsea boss to exile his forward from the squad.
The situation quickly disintegrated as Costa refused to train with the reserves, leaving Chelsea struggling to find a buyer.
Abramovich was said to be furious and, although Costa eventually got his wish to join Atletico Madrid, the Italian has been on a collision course with the club's hierarchy ever since.
The breakdown in relations manifested itself in Conte dragging out negotiations over a new contract and when he eventually signed the improved terms, tellingly it didn't include an extension.
Already grumbling about his lack of influence over transfers and complaining that Chelsea weren't spending as much as their rivals, Conte was livid when Abramovich sanctioned Nemanja Matic's switch to Manchester United.
It didn't help that technical director Michael Emenalo left the club, leaving Marina Granovskaia, a close Abramovich aide, in charge of transfer deals, much to Conte's chagrin.
Engaging in a petty feud with Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho only added to the perception that Conte was unravelling as Chelsea failed to keep pace with City in the title race.
"That's the type of wretched result and performance that gets managers the sack," Henry Winter, chief football writer of The Times, said of the rout at Watford.
Yet Conte has never seemed settled in England, with his family only joining him this year, and he seems unruffled by the prospect of leaving.
"I'm not worried. I can be the Chelsea coach or not. What is the problem? My soul is clear," he said after the Watford game.
From the very first day of the season, Chelsea, reflecting their manager's discontent, have seemed totally out of sync on the pitch.
A shock 3-2 home defeat against Burnley on the opening weekend foreshadowed the problems to come, with Conte claiming it could take four years to build a team capable of consistently winning silverware.
That downbeat assessment hardly inspired Conte's players, who were already reported to be chafing at his demanding training sessions and intense personality.
A 3-0 loss at Roma in the Champions League in October exposed more fault lines in a team suddenly bereft of confidence, with the problems exacerbated by David Luiz clashing with the Italian after the defender criticised his tactics.
Adding to Conte's woes, Tiemoue Bakayoko, signed from Monaco to fill the defensive midfield role vacated by Matic, has endured a dismal season, while Alvaro Morata, the Spain striker brought to replace Costa, has been inconsistent in front of goal and lacks his predecessor's intimidating physical presence.
Numerous hamstring injuries to Chelsea players this season have led some to question whether Conte's training methods are culpable, yet he complained that the club had signed too many players, rather than investing their money in marquee recruits like City and Manchester United.