If Antonio Conte leaves Chelsea, he has no shortage of options -- including Italy
Italy's failure to qualify for the World Cup was both a triumph and a disaster for Antonio Conte. A proud patriot's reputation has been further enhanced by the failure of his successor as national team coach. "It is a disaster for us," said Conte on Friday. "You know very well how important football is in Italy. They have to find the right solution and improve the solution."
Gian Piero Ventura failed to build on the good work Conte did in two years as Azzurri manager, paying the price by being sacked on Wednesday. Now, a nation searches for its footballing soul after missing out on the tournament's finals for the first time in 60 years.
"The national team gives you emotion and stimuli and I hope this European Championship will leave a legacy, of love for the shirts we were wearing," Conte had said after Italy lost a quarterfinal penalty shootout to Germany.
Ventura's catastrophe threw the achievements of Conte's tenure into sharp light. If Ventura's problem was a lack of talent coming through from Serie A, then how did Conte make Italy one of the best teams at Euro 2016 -- one that was unlucky not to go deeper in the competition? A comprehensive 2-0 round-of-16 defeat of Spain was probably the best team performance of the tournament, though their 2-0 win over Belgium in their opening match wasn't far behind.
Conte is revered back home for a high quality of preparation, coaching and tactical nous added to the passion he brings from the sidelines. If things go awry at Chelsea, as is always possible under the ownership of Roman Abramovich, then Conte will not suffer for offers in Italy. In fact, Ventura's failure makes Conte's future look even brighter.
As Italy toiled in Milan on Monday, with Sweden sitting comfortably on their 1-0 advantage from the first leg, a succession of forwards struggled to find openings. The aptly named Ciro Immobile, accompanied by Southampton's Manolo Gabbiadini (and later on, Stephan El Shaarawy and Andrea Belotti), never looked remotely close to finding a goal to rescue Italy.
At Euro 2016, Conte celebrated two goals from Graziano Pelle (against Belgium and Spain) and Eder's late winner against Sweden in Toulouse. Neither are forwards of the class of previous Italian generations but Conte got a tune from them that Ventura could never find.
The emergence of Carlo Ancelotti as the widely quoted first choice to try to revive Italy could be another positive development for Conte if it happens. Speculation continues to boil that Ancelotti, lately seen visiting Stamford Bridge after his departure from Bayern Munich, is also being earmarked to succeed Conte, who has been publicly annoyed by such talk.
Ancelotti is also a possible contender for vacancies that may be imminent at the two Milan giants, clubs with new owners and ambitions of claiming back the glory days. Seventh-placed AC Milan looks the greater possibility there, with Luciano Spalletti's Inter currently on the coattails of Napoli and Juventus.
As the foremost Italian coach around (with nods to Juventus successor Massimiiano Allegri and Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri) Conte has possibilities no matter what plays out at Chelsea. And matters were much improved by beating Manchester United 1-0 a fortnight ago. Losing to a manager sacked by Abramovich is never good for prospects as Ancelotti, sacked that summer, found when his Chelsea team lost to a Jose Mourinho-led Inter in March 2010 in the Champions League but Conte dodged that bullet and determinedly fights on.
Saturday's visit to West Brom sees him return to the scene of his greatest triumph, where last season's Premier League title was secured with a late goal from Michy Batshuayi -- not that such a recent memory is any kind of protection for a Chelsea manager. There have been significant changes since and not only in the fact that Chelsea are trailing in fourth place, nine points behind Manchester City. On Friday, Conte described the departure of sporting director Michael Emenalo as "a big loss."
The Hawthorns in May was a night when now-departed Diego Costa doused everyone he could find in champagne and had to be diverted from aiming a fire extinguisher at Conte during his post-match news conference. It took David Luiz's intervention to stop his compatriot dousing manager, journalists and recording equipment, but the central defender's role as spiritual leader is itself under threat.
The very probable replacement for Luiz in defence on Saturday will be Andreas Christensen, part of Denmark's 5-1 crushing of Ireland's World Cup dream on Tuesday and looking capable of being the first Chelsea youth product to become a first-teamer since John Terry.
One day, perhaps soon, with the call from Italy growing ever stronger, Christensen might be regarded as one of Conte's Chelsea legacies.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.