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

FA Cup
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 By Phil Lythell

Chelsea's season still in front of them despite poor January, recent crisis talk

The FC guys delve into the rumours that former Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique is the top choice to replace Antonio Conte at Chelsea.
ESPN FC's Steve Nicol worries that Chelsea might lose Thibaut Courtois if they don't act quickly and get him signed to a new contract.
ESPN FC's Steve Nicol is sick of Antonio Conte's self praise and argues the Chelsea manager isn't putting in the effort the job requires.

As absurd as it might seem, Chelsea are a club that is never more than two games from a crisis. A sluggish January that contained a Carabao Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Arsenal certainly saw momentum checked, though the comfortable 3-0 win over Newcastle in the FA Cup the following weekend seemed to have settled everything down.

Fast forward 10 days and the situation could not be more different. Two limp defeats against relatively humble opposition in Bournemouth and Watford has brought manager Antonio Conte's immediate future into sharp focus. In light of Chelsea's recent history, there has been plenty of reasonable conjecture suggesting that he will be departing the club sooner rather than later.

On one hand, such a reaction to two losses could be dismissed as the type of hysteria that is symptomatic of the modern era of football coverage and the hyperbole of fandom on social media. Form could turn round, attitudes could change and the bounce of the ball might start to fall more favourably. But this is Roman Abramovich's Chelsea and the owner has never been shy about pulling the trigger if he feels that any imminent targets are about to be missed. With Chelsea losing consecutive games by a three-goal margin for the first time since 1995 and doing so against teams that are looking over their shoulder at the relegation zone, there is every justification for talk of crisis to be enveloping Stamford Bridge.

The club hierarchy, to their credit, have indicated that there is no reason to panic. While they might not have acquiesced to Conte's wishes by issuing a public statement offering their backing, they have rightfully pointed out that they are still currently in the Champions League, FA Cup and occupy one of the Champions League qualification spots. With that in mind, Chelsea's next five games may well define their fortunes for the rest of the season as well as Conte's employment status.

Next Monday sees West Bromwich Albion visit West London for what is clearly a must-win game. In fact, it is arguable that a good performance will be just as important as collecting three points. A scrappy, narrow win over the team propping up the table is unlikely to be viewed too positively by those in the directors' box. Not that a win will be straightforward against a side that has rediscovered their goalscoring touch under Alan Pardew, even if they do have just one win in their last 25 Premier League games. They deservedly eliminated a strong Liverpool side from the FA Cup at Anfield and boast former Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge in their ranks to add to their newly discovered firepower.

Antonio Conte looks on as Chelsea lose to Bournemouth in the Premier League.
Chelsea's next five games will make or break their season and likely decide Antonio Conte's immediate future.

Failure to beat West Brom would only increase the pressure on Conte. But if that were followed four days later by a failure to progress in the FA Cup against a Hull side sitting in the relegation places of the Championship, it would probably make Conte's position untenable in the eyes of the board, if not the supporters. Conte's problem is that just four days after that Chelsea host Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie so he is likely to keep the majority of his first team fresh for the runaway leaders of La Liga. That would be entirely understandable yet the quandary for Conte is that should he field a vastly weakened side against Hull and not win, he might not even be in the dugout when the Catalans come to the capital.

After the first leg against Barcelona, it doesn't get any easier with league trips to Manchester United and Manchester City in successive weeks. At the end of this run of fixtures, Chelsea and Conte's prospects will be much clearer.

While the gloom presently surrounding the club might suggest that the end is nigh, it must be remembered that this is Chelsea, the team that cantered to the Premier League title last season. The inherent quality is still there and the crowd support is as well despite recent setbacks. The vocal defiance offered by those in the stands towards the end of both recent defeats spoke volumes about their feelings towards their manager and his team.

And Chelsea being Chelsea it wouldn't be a massive surprise if they upset the odds and turned over Barcelona. After all, nobody gave them much of a chance against Pep Guardiola's all-conquering version in 2012 and yet the underdogs had their day.

By early March, it could well be that Chelsea have been dumped out of the FA Cup, on the cusp of elimination from Europe and find themselves out of the top four in the Premier League. Or they could still be cruising in two competitions after making a real statement of intent with a pair of positive results in Manchester.

Whatever happens, it won't be dull.

Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.

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