Time's up for Antonio Conte even if Chelsea beat Man United in FA Cup final
If ever a week encapsulated a team's season, it was the one that contained Chelsea's last three fixtures.
An imperfect but hard-fought and deserved win against a high-flying side in Liverpool under the blazing spring sunshine was immediately followed by a frustrating draw with Huddersfield and a staggering non-performance in the hammering at Newcastle. With two goals scored and four conceded across the three games, that familiar sight of a blunt attack combined with a porous defence was in evidence once again to undermine any previous good work.
And yet, the seemingly calamitous results against Huddersfield and Newcastle might just do Chelsea a favour in the medium to long term. The run of four consecutive Premier League wins had raised hopes of an unlikely top four finish as the Blues closed the gap on their rivals. But to achieve that either Liverpool or Tottenham had to drop sufficient points in their remaining games. With no away fixtures remaining for either side, this was always going to be a long shot. Liverpool, for example, were never going to fail to beat a Brighton team already safe from relegation.
Had Chelsea extended their winning run to six games and then capped that by lifting the FA Cup this coming Saturday, it would have been a fair bet that there would have been an almighty clamour from the supporters urging Roman Abramovich to keep hold of Antonio Conte. Now, even if Manchester United are vanquished at Wembley, such intense exhortations are unlikely to occur.
That is not to say that Conte has lost the support of the vast majority of fans. As a title-winning manager, he is held in huge affection by the Stamford Bridge faithful and will always be afforded the fondest of welcomes on any future return to west London. But the fractious nature of this season -- especially since the turn of the year -- has been seen before at the club and it doesn't end well.
In the 2006-07 season, Jose Mourinho, the most successful manager in the history of the club, fell out spectacularly with Abramovich. The appointment of Avram Grant as director of football was made to seemingly undermine the influence of Portuguese, who was perceived as becoming too big for his boots by the Chelsea hierarchy.
The vanity purchases of Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Ballack were completed without consulting the manager, forcing Mourinho to change a system that had won the previous two Premier League titles with unrelenting dominance. They subsequently finished second. An FA Cup win a week later saw Mourinho grandstand on the Wembley steps, signalling how many trophies he had now won for the club in just three years. An uneasy truce was forced and, rather than go their separate ways, both parties agreed to give it another go. Six weeks into the following season, the relationship had broken down beyond repair and Mourinho was gone leaving Grant to steer the listing ship.
Conte might not have won nearly as much as Mourinho but his achievements in his two seasons at the club are still mightily impressive. Dragging a talented but confidence-sapped squad up from 10th position to first was extraordinary in itself. But it was even more difficult when considering it was his first post outside of Italy and he was up against the likes of Mourinho at Manchester United and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, both of whom had spent vast sums to enhance their squads. He has reached two FA Cup finals and might yet win one of them if his team actually turn up at Wembley on Saturday.
Even if he does add to his trophy collection this weekend, it should not paper over the fissures that have developed between Conte and the club grandees that have only grown wider over the course of the campaign. Even if the supporters do urge a reconciliation, just like an unhappy couple choosing to stay together for the sake of the children, it will only serve to delay the inevitable and force an even more painful split later down the line.
Instead, this Saturday should be used as a punctuation point for both the club and its manager. Ideally, it will be an exclamation mark. A win would be the perfect way to sign off for Conte, not least at it would come at the expense of Mourinho, one of his most voluble antagonists.
But it would also be the ideal moment to say goodbye to the fans, receiving the acclaim for a famous win against a major rival rather than suffering in the wake of the frustration and anger that greeted the results against Huddersfield and Newcastle. It would be the very least that this Premier League-winning manager deserves.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.