Conte: Chelsea recruitment won't be harmed by lack of UCL football
LONDON -- Antonio Conte played down the suggestion that Chelsea could struggle to keep their best players or attract elite talent if they fail to finish in the Premier League's top four this season.
Wednesday's elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona means Chelsea must secure no worse than a fourth-place finish if they are to participate in Europe's elite club competition next season, but they currently lie fifth, four points adrift of Liverpool with only eight matches remaining.
Failing to qualify for the second time in three seasons would deal a blow to Chelsea's finances and prestige, while Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are both attracting interest from Real Madrid as the Blues attempt to tie them to new long-term contracts.
Speaking at a news conference on Friday, however, Conte did not seem unduly worried.
"Don't forget that two years ago, Chelsea finished 10th with many players of this season, and they decided to continue to play for this club," he said. "I think this is not a question for me, it's a question for the players."
Asked if Chelsea might be a less attractive destination for top players without Champions League football, Conte replied by pointing to the fact that they fared little better in last summer's transfer window despite dealing from a position of greater strength.
"I don't know if it's a problem to attract a great player or not [without Champions League football]," he added. "If you remember last season we won the title, and then you can see our transfer market. I think this is not the most important thing, if you win or stay in the Champions League."
Conte also insisted that Chelsea finishing below the top four this season would be a collective failure, not an individual one.
"I think for the result of our team, like last season when we won the title and reached the FA Cup final, it's always the same," he continued. "We must be ready to share the responsibility with the club, with the players, with me and my staff."
Conte is expected to leave Chelsea at the end of the season and the FA Cup now represents the only chance of signing off with silverware, but he dismissed any talk of personal motivation to claim the trophy.
"I don't like to speak about myself," he said. "We have to speak about the club, about the players, and to use 'we', not 'I.' [The FA Cup] is an important trophy and we want to fight until the end but as you know, only one team wins this trophy.
"At this level when you reach the quarterfinal there is a lot of competition between the teams and it won't be easy, but we have to try to do our best."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.