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Chelsea will continue to decline unless they start to match rivals' spending

Amid speculation Antonio Conte could return to Italy, former Chelsea midfielder Craig Burley questions whether he will survive the season at Chelsea.
Ahead of Chelsea's clash with Watford, Stewart Robson and Alison Bender discuss the future of under fire boss Antonio Conte.

No matter who holds the dubious distinction of being Chelsea's manager next season, the frustrations recently aired by Antonio Conte about the club's player recruitment ensure that the man in the hotseat at Stamford Bridge can expect a bumpy ride.

It may well be that Conte, who has taken the bold step of demanding a public vote of confidence from his bosses, remains in his post. But if Roman Abramovich's patience with Chelsea managers is anything to go by, the Italian will have to win the Champions League this season to have any hope of holding onto his job. And even that may not be enough.

All the signs are pointing toward a change of manager this summer. Conte is posting many of them himself -- with the former Juventus and Italy coach challenging his bosses and Abramovich doing little to suggest that he is ready to stick with him for the long term.

But whether it is Conte or somebody else -- Diego Simeone, Massimiliano Allegri or even Brendan Rodgers -- the challenge of managing Chelsea has now become wholly different from the one Jose Mourinho faced on the two occasions he was handed the task of guiding the club to glory.

Chelsea and Abramovich, it seems, have started to shy away from the battle against the biggest and richest clubs in the transfer market. Conte is discovering firsthand the reality of having to meet huge expectations without the resources once taken for granted by those in his position.

It explains why he has been so vocal in recent times about the players at his disposal and Chelsea's inability, or reluctance, to go head-to-head with Manchester United and Manchester City when the best players become available.

Not since Chelsea won the race to sign Diego Costa from Atletico Madrid in 2014 has the club truly punched its weight in the transfer market.

At £32 million, the Costa deal was relatively cheap, but Chelsea nonetheless beat stiff competition to sign the Spain forward.

It was the same when they signed Eden Hazard from Lille in the summer of 2012 for around the same fee, with the Belgian rejecting interest from United and City to move to Stamford Bridge.

Eighteen months earlier, Chelsea had smashed the British transfer record by paying £50m to prise Fernando Torres from Liverpool, which was another example of the club's ability to go to another level financially thanks to Abramovich's backing.

But since winning the title under Mourinho in 2014-15, Chelsea have allowed their rivals to control the market.

Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez -- all of whom were Chelsea targets -- ended up at Old Trafford, while Liverpool beat them to £75m defender Virgil van Dijk.

Manchester City have spent close to £450m under Pep Guardiola, landing other Blues targets such as John Stones and Kyle Walker during that time. Other than when they signed N'Golo Kante from Leicester, Chelsea have bolstered their squad with second-choices or even worse. And this is why next season promises to be a tough one for the man in charge.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte looks dejected during the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge in London, Wednesday Jan. 31, 2018.
Antonio Conte would have a difficult time competing even if he returns as Chelsea's manager.

The ultimate side effect of accepting second best, or failing to properly replace the likes of Costa, Nemanja Matic, Frank Lampard or John Terry is that the team suffers as a result.

Just as United have spent the last five years paying for their low-budget recruitment for four years after selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in 2009, Chelsea are now showing signs they will suffer the same fate with Conte repeatedly sounding the alarm bell.

But as they prepare to travel to Watford on Monday night, sitting just one point clear of fifth-placed Tottenham, Chelsea's lack of depth and lack of quality underscores why Conte has complained about having to compete with United and City.

Michy Batshuayi has come and gone (on loan to Dortmund), having never been truly rated by Conte, and Alvaro Morata is starting to look like the second or third choice that he was at Real Madrid when signed for £60m last summer.

Tiemoue Bakayoko has struggled all season to provide any evidence that he is a better player than Matic, who was sold to United, while Antonio Rudiger and David Zappacosta have both been little better than average.

As for Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley, they are two players who would not have come close to playing for Chelsea just three or four years ago. The same could be said for Olivier Giroud.

Had Chelsea been prepared to meet Edin Dzeko's demand for a two-and-a-half-year contract last month, the Roma forward would have arrived and given Conte a proven player that he actually wanted. But other than defender Emerson Palmieri, Conte was forced to make do with what Chelsea could get rather than what he needed.

Now the pattern has been set. Chelsea have steadily replaced great players with inferior ones and the incredible success of last season, when Conte guided them to the Premier League title, appears even more remarkable.

But unless Chelsea and Abramovich are prepared to spend at the top end of the market again, managers such as Conte will find it increasingly difficult to meet expectations.

The squad is declining in quality, but the demands for success from the hierarchy remain the same. So it will be a thankless task for Conte, or his successor, next season unless this summer signals a change of approach in the transfer market.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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