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Conte's last stand, trophy-hunter Mourinho on prowl

FA Cup
 By Mark Worrall

Chelsea must smooth any rough edges between club and Antonio Conte

The wild speculation associated with Chelsea's current torpor in the transfer market took an unexpected twist on Thursday when a rumour surfaced in the Italian media that there is tension between manager Antonio Conte and the club's hierarchy.

Following in the wake of tempestuous striker Diego Costa's decision to inform the world that Conte had advised him by text he wasn't wanted next season, it's now claimed the Italian wants a direct line of communication with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.

Whether or not there is any truth in the story remains to be seen, but the fact that a deal to extend Conte's contract as Blues boss beyond 2019 has yet to be finalised, and the 47-year-old appears to have little control over player recruitment or the appointment of an assistant to replace Steve Holland, must be a deep source of frustration.

The value of Conte's currency as a coach could not be higher. Winning the Premier League in his first season in England while being distanced from his immediate family who remained in Italy was an outstanding achievement. The Chelsea manager's intoxicating mix of touchline passion and humility saw supporters cradle him to their collective bosom. Right now, as far as the fans are concerned, Conte can do no wrong.

A speedy resolution to Conte's contract talks would certainly calm troubled waters after Serie A side Inter Milan had been linked with a move for him. The Italian club had tabled a reported £50 million plus a four-year deal to lure the Chelsea manager back to his homeland and were reportedly prepared to bankroll him in the transfer market. Conte rebuffed Inter -- who ended up appointing Luciano Spalletti -- stating he wanted to stay at Chelsea for many years, but clearly a financial marker was laid down which has yet to be met by Abramovich.

On the playing front, there is no doubt that with the Blues returning to European competition, Conte needs reinforcements and also the departure of disruptive Costa cannot come soon enough.

Chelsea were fortunate last season not to be hampered by injuries to key men meaning that once Conte figured out the starting XI that could best execute his now-fabled 3-4-3 tactical strategy, with the exception of the occasional tweak in midfield, the lineup had a very settled look about it -- which included Costa as the lone striker.

Of course, like last summer, Conte will use the forthcoming preseason friendly schedule to assess the capabilities of players who have been out on loan.

The Italian led Chelsea to the Premier League title in his first season in charge.
The Italian led Chelsea to the Premier League title in his first season in charge.

At the top of the list is centre-back Andreas Christensen, who has completed a successful two-year loan spell with Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach and has been told to report for training on July 7. Christensen made 81 appearances for the German club and featured in their Champions League campaign last season. At 21, the Denmark international appears to be primed for success, but it will be Conte's call and the fact that Chelsea are once more being linked with Leonardo Bonucci of Juventus and Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli suggests the boss is also on the hunt for an experienced, world-class defender to fill the breach created by the release of club legend John Terry.

Bonucci and Koulibaly aren't the only players back on Chelsea's transfer radar. Making the biggest noise at the moment is Romelu Lukaku. The Everton striker has been hotly tipped to return to Stamford Bridge for months, but a deal has yet to be finalised.

There is a creeping sense of unease among Chelsea supporters that the board aren't doing enough to back Conte -- deja vu perhaps from the summer of 2015 when Jose Mourinho asked but didn't get. The fallout then was spectacular as the reigning Premier League champions' dressing room fragmented amid tales of treachery. Mourinho was soon sacked -- and Conte eventually picked up the pieces.

Lessons learned? Unlikely. Abramovich is a law unto himself. As it transpired, Chelsea were very fortunate to secure the services of Conte who has proved himself to be a truly inspirational manager. The owner must realise that if there was a fractious parting of the ways, next time the club might not be so lucky.

Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco


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