Antonio Conte wins back support from Chelsea fans as Abramovich weighs up options
Chelsea's run to the FA Cup final has not only lifted the mood among supporters dismayed by the way the season has unfolded -- it has renewed the faith that many had lost in Antonio Conte.
A catalogue of poor performances pockmarked by ill-discipline and questionable tactics had withered the fans' love for an increasingly truculent Conte. It got to the point against West Ham recently the familiar "Antonio, Antonio" chant was left unsung for the first time since it was conceived 18 months ago. The failed defence of the Premier League title and timid exits to Arsenal in the Carabao Cup and Barcelona in the Champions League had disappointed, but losing a 28-year undefeated home record to Tottenham was unacceptable. Had Roman Abramovich decided to sack Conte at this juncture, there is every chance he would have been lauded by Blues fans for doing so.
That the notoriously impatient Abramovich chose to do nothing raised questions as to why. It would have cost the Russian the best part of £10 million in compensation to rid himself of the Italian -- and it still could if it comes to that in the next month or so. Financial considerations have never been an issue before for the billionaire Chelsea owner when it comes to terminating contracts of managers abruptly so maybe his decision owed more to the fact the candidature of the managers linked with the hot seat failed to motivate him sufficiently to wield the ax.
As far as Blues supporters are concerned, Luis Enrique (ex-Barcelona), Maurizio Sarri (Napoli), Brendan Rodgers (Celtic) and Massimiliano Allegri (Juventus) are not viewed as an upgrade, while there has been little enthusiasm for other coaches including Leonardo Jardim (Monaco), Thomas Tuchel (ex-Dortmund) and former double-winning Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti.
The renaissance in support for Conte has come largely because the Italian has once again proved his worth as a shrewd tactician and this will not have been lost on Abramovich as he weighs his options up.
In the league game following the 1-1 draw with West Ham, Chelsea went 2-0 behind to Southampton at St. Mary's. The writing was on the wall for the Blues boss but instead of giving up the ghost he made a double substitution, taking off Davide Zappacosta and Alvaro Morata and sending on Pedro and Olivier Giroud. A shift of formation from 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1 with Pedro, Willian and Eden Hazard buzzing behind Giroud flummoxed the Saints defence to the point of capitulation. Chelsea scored three goals and won the game.
In the next match away to Burnley, a team who have fashioned their unexpected success in the league this season on the back of mean defending, Conte deployed a 3-5-2 set-up fielding Giroud and Morata as twin strikers. It was manna from heaven for supporters who'd been praying to see this type of experiment. The Blues won a pulsating game 2-1.
While fifth-placed Chelsea picked up six points from two matches, fourth placed Tottenham in the final automatic Champions League place picked up just one meaning the gap between the sides has narrowed to five points. With only four games remaining that may prove too challenging for Conte's side, but given Spurs' propensity to come up short when it matters the Blues will be inspired to keep on winning.
Chelsea were always the better side against Southampton in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley, but despite creating plenty of chances they failed to score in the first half. Having taken the lead immediately after the break through Giroud, but with the all-important second goal not looking imminent, Conte invoked the wrath of many fans by taking off Willian and replacing him with Tiemoue Bakayoko, who has had a trying first season. The decision was vindicated, though, as Bakayoko helped shore up midfield and quell Southampton's spirited fight-back which floundered when Conte replaced Cesc Fabregas with Pedro. Once again Chelsea surged forward and it was no surprise when they scored again through Morata, himself a late substitute for Giroud.
As chants of "Antonio, Antonio" rippled around the stadium, it was clear Conte had got his mojo back. The past three games had been won because the Chelsea manager had his finger on the pulse when it came to tactics and clearly had the ambition to put things right -- not just for himself but for the fans as well. If it's in the Italian's mind to give up on his job, it certainly hasn't been in evidence. If anything, throughout his struggles this season all he ever asked for was for the Chelsea board to make a statement backing him.
Beating Manchester United in the FA Cup final on May 19 won't be easy, but it's achievable. The game is certain to be a tactical battle of wits but if Conte outsmarts Jose Mourinho his name will echo around Wembley once more and support for him to stay will be loud and clear to Abramovich.
If, by some miracle, fourth place in the Premier League is achieved, it would be deafening.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco