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 By Mark Worrall

Chelsea edge Norwich but Conte frustration remains a concern for fans

The ESPN FC crew believe something is up with Antonio Conte.
The ESPN FC crew believe something is up with Antonio Conte.

There was a brief moment during Chelsea's controversy-riddled third round FA Cup replay win over Norwich that evoked memories of a far grander occasion.

As Eden Hazard stepped up to take what would be the decisive spot-kick in the penalty shootout, thoughts drifted back to that famous night in Munich when Didier Drogba sent Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer the wrong way from the spot with what proved to be the last kick of a dramatic Champions League final.

As Drogba peeled away, travelling Chelsea supporters celebrated the shootout victory like they'd never celebrated before. It was a pivotal moment in the club's history, a feeling of unbridled joy that may never be eclipsed.

It's always been a bit of a rollercoaster ride following Chelsea and in the six years since that Champions League triumph, fans have seen managers come and go, silverware won and lost as a boom-and-bust cycle at the Bridge has developed and intensified.

Had Hazard failed to beat Norwich keeper Angus Gunn from the spot and the Canaries gone on to record a shock victory, the ramifications for Chelsea manager Antonio Conte could have been disastrous.

Roberto Di Matteo lasted barely half a season as boss when things went awry after he guided Chelsea to glory in Munich in 2012, and it was the same story for Jose Mourinho whose world imploded in a similar space of time after he secured the Premier League title for the club in 2015.

Conte won the league at a canter in his first season as Chelsea manager, a campaign marked by a unified dressing room responding to innovative coaching. Life has got progressively harder this time around, and the sight of Conte raging on the touchline during the Norwich game and seemingly neglecting his players as the game progressed through extra time only added to the growing belief that something isn't quite right.

Forget the diving, the dismissals of Pedro and Alvaro Morata, referee Graham Scott and the VAR controversy -- fans should never have been in the position to endure such drama, because Chelsea should have beaten Norwich at the first attempt at Carrow Road.

The Chelsea boss has cut an increasingly flustered figure in recent weeks.

Woeful finishing was the nub of the problem as it has been since the turn of the year. Given the replay was all-square at the final whistle, Conte's side have now drawn five games in a row in all competitions, the first time that has happened since 1969. Three of those draws have been scoreless, and as club record signing Morata's profligacy in front of goal shows no sign of abating -- and indeed seems to have affected his teammates -- the root cause of the problem and what the remedy is has yet to be identified by Conte. He increasingly bears the look of a man living in a world of pain.

Seemingly tortured by the perceived transfer market torpor of the Chelsea board, the Italian also appears to have become increasingly distracted by his spat with Manchester United manager Mourinho. Factor in the persistent rumours about his future at the Bridge, a run of poor form and exasperation with match officials and you have all the ingredients for another bust phase in SW6.

Whether or not Hazard's penalty and the victory that came with it will prove to be a positive turning point for Conte and Chelsea remains to be seen. The Blues play Brighton away in the Premier League this Saturday and then face Arsenal in the decisive second- eg of the Carabao Cup semifinal at the Emirates in midweek before entertaining Newcastle United in the FA Cup at the Bridge the following weekend.

Victory in all three games would be a massive boost for Conte and allay the nagging fear he is slowly losing the plot and with it, quite possibly the dressing room. Starting with the Brighton game in which he will be shorn of the services of the now suspended Spanish duo Pedro and Morata, Conte's team selection and tactics will be the subject of rigorous scrutiny and criticism if things don't work out.

As ever, the Italian retains the support of Chelsea's match-going fraternity who want him to put things right. The fans, however, have become accustomed to the way things can change rapidly at their club, for better or for worse, and have all but given up on trying to second-guess what might actually happen.

It may seem like a chaotic world to try and embrace, but if success is measured in trophies, then despite all the madness, the bigger picture is prettier than the smaller ones suggest.

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


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