Eden Hazard's and Diego Costa's futures could define Conte's Chelsea career
It's often said that defence is the best form of attack, but to win football games, a team needs to score more goals than it concedes. That Chelsea excelled in this area in winning the Premier League last season was largely attributable to the form and function of two key players, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa.
In 2014-15, midfielder Hazard scored 14 Premier League goals and assisted on nine more, and striker Costa scored 20 goals and assisted on a further three. By comparison, in the top flight this season to date, Hazard had failed to score and recorded four assists, while Costa has 11 goals and five assists to his name. With Hazard currently injured and Costa suspended for one game and possibly more, those stats won't be improving any time soon.
Given that Chelsea's last chances of winning silverware this season ended abruptly following defeats by Paris Saint-Germain (Champions League) and Everton (FA Cup), the remainder of the Premier League campaign will provide the London club with the opportunity to assess players and plan for the future. During that time, Hazard and Costa are certain to be under the microscope.
The proven capabilities of both men make them valuable commodities in the transfer market. The critical question is: would Chelsea be better off selling Hazard and Costa this summer and using the likely £100 million combined fee to bring in new goal getters, or should they persist and hope that normal service will be restored next season?
The man tasked with finding the answer looks likely to be current Italy manager Antonio Conte, who seems set to take up the herculean challenge of restoring Chelsea's fortunes at the conclusion of Euro 2016.
The London club's fall from grace in England's top flight has been spectacular. Last season, Jose Mourinho's side won the title at a canter courtesy of a prolific attack that plundered 73 goals and a mean defence that conceded just 32 goals. Chelsea's goal difference of plus-41 was bettered only by runners-up Manchester City, at plus-45.
With nine games left to play in the current Premier League campaign, Chelsea's present tally makes for a feeble and sobering comparison. Forty-three goals scored, 39 conceded and a goal difference of plus-4 (making them 10th in the division) highlights the scale and nature of failure at Stamford Bridge.
The demise of Hazard from player of the year to player who didn't appear, coupled with the surliness of Costa, contributed greatly to Chelsea's problems that snowballed from the start of this season and culminated in an avalanche of "palpable discord" in the Blues' dressing room which Mourinho paid for with his job.
Although interim boss Guus Hiddink has made a reasonable job of becalming players and marginally improving results, Hazard and Costa remain a source of frustration and disappointment to some Chelsea supporters.
The risible sight of a below-par Hazard swapping shirts with an ebullient Angel Di Maria at half-time during Chelsea's make-or-break match with PSG was as annoying as seeing Costa's latest pantomime villain routine, which brought him a red card at Everton.
What Conte would have made of such reckless drama is intriguing. No stranger to success, it's clear the Italian does not suffer fools gladly. Prior to managing the Azzurri the 46-year-old guided Juventus to three successive Serie A titles, and as a player for the Turin club he won five domestic titles and the Champions League. The Italian will need every last ounce of his rich pedigree and deep experience to get Chelsea back on track. Having a solid working relationship with the squad will be paramount to achieving this.
Given that Blues owner Roman Abramovich, not a man famed for his patience, will likely view qualification for the Champions League as the minimum target Conte must achieve in his first season in charge to retain his job, the pressure will be on from the get-go.
Simply speaking, should Conte be in charge, the starting XI for Chelsea's first Premier League fixture next season cannot afford to include any enigmatic passengers or temperamental liabilities. Currently, Hazard and Costa can be respectively categorised as such.
Given the short space of time between Conte being able to start his new job (Euro 2016 concludes on July 10) and Aug. 13, when the 2016-17 campaign kicks off, the Italian will need to form an opinion on both players quickly -- indeed, he may already have done this.
A great manager strives to succeed with the squad he has at his disposal. A wise manager knows when to gamble and when to pass on players. In the case of Chelsea, Hazard and Costa, Conte cannot afford to speculate, so the Italian's wisdom may well determine his greatness at Stamford Bridge.
Mark Worrall has penned several books on the history and success of Chelsea Football Club. You can follow him on Twitter @gate17marco.