Chelsea show life in top four fight but it could be too little, too late for Conte
While it was gratifying to watch, Chelsea supporters had every right to feel frustrated as they witnessed their side put in a committed shift to see off Liverpool on Sunday. The 1-0 victory made it five straight wins in all competitions for the London club equalling their best run of form in what overall has been a disappointing campaign.
Should they win their remaining two Premier League games against Huddersfield Town and Newcastle United there is an outside chance that fifth-placed Chelsea could qualify for next season's Champions League, but that outcome requires one of Tottenham -- who currently occupy fourth place -- or third placed Liverpool dropping points.
The Blues' destiny is largely out of their hands and should they fall short a glance at some of the nine league games they have lost will provide an unwelcome reminder of the problems they encountered during the season. Of their nine defeats to date, the 3-0 home loss to Bournemouth which was followed by a 4-1 thrashing by Watford at Vicarage Road stand out, as does the galling 3-1 beating by deadly rivals Tottenham at Stamford Bridge, the latter a game Chelsea had taken the lead in.
If Antonio Conte and his players had applied themselves in those games in the same motivated way they have done recently, the results would surely have been different and the Blues would now have the upper hand as far as Champions League qualification is concerned. After the Liverpool game, while it was nice to hear Conte and star man Eden Hazard respectively talking about applying pressure on their rivals and "giving everything", the polite version of the thoughts of many fans was along the lines of: "Great, but it's too late and it doesn't excuse what has gone before."
If Chelsea play like they have done recently they should not only beat Huddersfield and Newcastle but may very well get the better of Manchester United in the FA Cup final as well. There was a sense against Liverpool that Conte was trying out a template for the Wembley showdown with United. The Italian has tweaked his previously favoured 3-4-3 set up into a much more robust-looking 3-5-2 and against Jurgen Klopp's dynamic attacking side the system worked perfectly.
The backline of Cesar Azpilicueta, captain Gary Cahill and Antonio Rudiger with the safe hands of Thibaut Courtois behind them were cohesive and forceful. In midfield N'Golo Kante and a rejuvenated Tiemoue Bakayoko bristled with ball-winning energy which afforded Cesc Fabregas the opportunity to be more creative with his distribution, meaning wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso saw plenty of the ball as did Hazard. Freed of defensive duties, he was a constant menace and his link-up play with striker Olivier Giroud looked intuitive at times.
Giroud's expert header from a well-timed Moses cross which won the game wasn't the only goal-scoring chance Chelsea created. Finishing remains an issue but the overall performance suggested this was a team that could play as a unit, soak up pressure, counter attack and score goals.
As well as earning plaudits for his tactical nous, Conte also deserves credit for recognising that Cahill and perhaps Giroud have the added motivation to do well in order to be selected for their respective countries' World Cup squads. Cahill is playing with a degree of authority required from a captain that has been previously lacking when Chelsea have faltered while Giroud has the swaggering confidence the Blues have missed since Diego Costa departed. Conte has also restored the confidence of 23-year old Bakayoko, whose form had floundered after a promising start to his Chelsea career following his £40 move from Monaco last summer.
What the future holds for Conte as Blues boss remains unclear, but the 48-year-old still has over 12 months to run on his contract. And with Chelsea now seemingly reunified under his stewardship and no clear favourite emerging to succeed him should he depart or be fired, victory in the FA Cup could yet see him in charge of first team affairs at the Bridge next season. If by some stroke of good fortune qualification for the Champions League has also been secured, Conte staying would be a bit of a no brainer.
Certainly among the match-going fraternity there remains plenty of love for the Italian. And if the team are playing well, maybe a case of better the devil you know will work best a while longer for all parties. That includes Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich who will save himself approaching £10 million if he chooses not to terminate Conte's contract.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco