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Transfer Rater: Tonali to Chelsea

Football Whispers
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Transfer Rater: Jadon Sancho to Chelsea

Football Whispers
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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Antonio Conte's huge task to revive Chelsea after wretched season

Unless they beat their old rivals, the most fun Chelsea fans will have on Monday night will lie in issuing not-so gentle reminders that very few Tottenham supporters have vivid memories of 1961, the last time Spurs were crowned champions of England.

Even laughing at Mauricio Pochettino's team finishing second should ring hollow as 2015-16 has been a season to forget for Chelsea. Painful memories of the severance of Jose Mourinho in December have not been washed away by Guus Hiddink's second spell as caretaker boss.

The last time the Dutch veteran fulfilled that function, back in 2009, he signed off by being hoisted high by his players after winning the FA Cup final against Everton. This time, he could not prevent the club delivering the worst title defence in Premier League history.

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"We don't want to let this season fade away," Hiddink said on Friday, though the record books are unlikely to let it be forgotten.

Chelsea began the weekend tenth, eight points behind Liverpool in seventh, where Blackburn, in 1995-96 and Manchester United, in 2013-14, embarrassed themselves as defending champions. Relegation, a genuine threat when Hiddink arrived at Christmas with Chelsea in 16th -- one point off the bottom three -- has long been averted but Chelsea never came close to securing European football for next season. It's the first time in two decades they will be absent from continental competition.

In mitigation for Hiddink, the squad he inherited was desperately struggling, as compared to the fourth place he found Chelsea back in February 2009. And, in talent terms, it was vastly inferior. In 2009, Chelsea had John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Petr Cech at their playing peaks. Only Terry, just back from injury, remains, and Chelsea's next four matches are the dying embers of his Stamford Bridge career.

Owner Roman Abramovich must hope that the real prize from the season was securing the signature of Antonio Conte, the Italy coach whose three-year deal was confirmed on April 4. The evidence of the campaign, both before and after Mourinho, is that heavy reconstruction is required. Conte's challenge is far steeper than his revival of Juventus, who he took straight from seventh place in Serie in 2010-11 to three titles in a row.

Mourinho's downfall was previewed by a series of unsubtle hints of dissatisfaction at transfer business. Names like Papy Djilobodji and Michael Hector, players signed in August and who played a total of two minutes for the club between them before being loaned to Werder Bremen and Reading respectively, will forever be associated with a summer window that opened up battle lines between Mourinho and sporting director Michael Emenalo. That internal conflict contributed heavily to a discontent that the Portuguese deflected on his players, who eventually seemed to stop playing for him.

Hiddink was able to restore team spirit that nine defeats in 16 matches left at rock-bottom but not much more than that. "What I had to do maybe was to get them more confident on one hand," he said.

"Maybe on the other some were a bit complacent so we had to break moods in them."

A 14-match unbeaten run contained too many draws and silverware did not arrive. Chelsea were well beaten 4-2 on aggregate by Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the Champions League round of 16 and lost 2-0 to Everton in an FA Cup quarterfinal.

What does Hiddink leave Conte to work with? The leading question now is the possible departure of Thibaut Courtois, the Belgian goalkeeper disappointing as a replacement for Cech, whose sale to Arsenal last summer was another subject of Mourinho moans. Sources close to Courtois have told ESPN FC that the 23-year-old is considering his future. Real Madrid is a possible destination for the former Atletico Madrid player.

Compatriot Eden Hazard is currently a far less liquid asset after a dreadful individual campaign. Last week's 4-1 win at Bournemouth saw him score his first Premier League goals since May 2015 but his presence in the headlines has lately been confined to expressing hope that Tottenham did not win this season's title. A player once valued far north of £50 million must rediscover the presence of 2014-15 to make himself worth anything like that again. And while Cesc Fabregas and Pedro have lately revived, the temptation is to consider that the Spain duo only did so after pressure was off their shoulders.

Conte's intense modus operandi has been readily compared to that of Mourinho, but can he rely on players who collapsed under the demands of attempting to repeat last season's title? Or will Emenalo deliver him enough talent to freshen the squad? The signs of January's transfer dealing were not positive. Aside from being represented by the same agent as Ramires, cashed in to Jiangsu Suning for £25m, few know why Alexandre Pato or Matt Miazga are at Chelsea. They have just 176 minutes of first-team action between them.

Disputes with Dominic Solanke and Kyle Scott, two starlets, do not suggest much of a happy ship in that department, either, though that is beyond Hiddink's remit; the Dutchman took over a club where fault lines existed way beyond losing a few matches.

There could be no repeat of his triumph of 2009, nor that of other temporary managers Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez, who won the Champions League and Europa League respectively in 2012 and 2013.

Chelsea must swiftly rediscover their way after a great lost season, or again find themselves as observers of other clubs' push for trophies.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

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