Antonio Conte future hangs in the balance as carelessness costs Chelsea
Chelsea's 4-1 aggregate defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16 emphatically ended their participation in European football's elite competition. And as things stand in the Premier League, Antonio Conte's side are falling short in the race to qualify for next season's competition.
With eight games to play, Chelsea are four points shy of Liverpool who occupy the fourth and final automatic qualification place and a further point adrift of Tottenham Hotspur who lie third. Given that both these rivals have to visit Stamford Bridge during the run-in, the Blues can significantly enhance their chances of a top four finish by winning both matches -- of course the question is are they good enough to do so?
Going into Barcelona tie, the majority of Chelsea supporters were more concerned about Conte's side lacking the mental resilience to keep battling if things went wrong. Gone were the titans of the glorious 2012 Champions League campaign. Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba -- the much vaunted spine of the team. Of course it was a worry as time and again this season Chelsea had fallen behind and failed to drag themselves up by their bootlaces and fight for a result -- Barca would take full advantage of such a failing should it surface again.
As it transpired, Conte's team showed bags of character and spirit against the Catalan giants in both matches but were undone by avoidable errors that make for uncomfortable viewing not only for Blues supporters but for the players culpable. Lionel Messi took full advantage, scoring three times across two legs. At Stamford Bridge in the first leg, a mistake by Andreas Christensen led to Messi striking the ball past Thibaut Courtois and in the Camp Nou Messi twice nutmegged Courtois to put his side out of sight. The build up to Barcelona's other goal, scored by Ousmane Dembele, saw Cesc Fabregas allow Messi to rob him of the ball and the 30-year old then showed Cesar Azpilicueta a clean pair of heels on his way to teeing up Dembele.
By way of an excuse, it could be reasoned that in Messi, Barcelona have football's greatest player. Give him an inch and he'll take a mile and unfortunately that's what Chelsea did. Sadly this season the Blues have also given inches to Burnley, Crystal Palace, Roma, West Ham United, Bournemouth, Watford, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City (twice); a catalogue of defeats which have brought increasing pressure on Conte who ultimately has to take responsibility for the failings of his team.
It's not all bad news for the beleaguered Italian. The resurgence of Willian, who has scored 13 goals in all competitions this season, has been eye catching. On his day, and he's been having plenty of those of late, the Brazil international has become as capable a match-winner as Eden Hazard. In midfield, N'Golo Kante continues to display the attributes that made him PFA Player of the Year while wing-back Marcos Alonso's buccaneering runs and free kick capabilities still have goals written all over them.
Given these positives, if Conte is able to iron out the problems caused by a lack of concentration as opposed to motivation, there is every chance he may yet secure a top four finish. Whether or not this will be deemed sufficient for job retention remains to be seen. The Stamford Bridge hierarchy's decision on the matter will also be influenced by Chelsea's performance in the FA Cup which is now the only silverware the club can win this season.
Sunday sees the Blues face a Leicester City in a tricky-looking quarterfinal at the King Power. The Foxes don't have Messi in their ranks but they do have Riyad Mahrez, a player more than capable of shredding unfocussed defences. If Chelsea are to progress, Conte will need to ensure that the team he selects are capable of beating a side whose sole remaining objective this season has to be winning the FA Cup.
Typically, Conte would have looked at the FA Cup as an opportunity to rest key players Alonso, Kante and Willian, but with a two-week international break following Leicester he may well decide to retain their services. Their inclusion could prove crucial to Chelsea's chances of winning and in tandem with that, Conte remaining in charge a while longer.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco