Crossing Abramovich might have doomed Antonio Conte at Chelsea
Antonio Conte is still Chelsea manager for now, but he arguably triggered his eventual downfall before he had secured the Premier League title in his first season as manager at Stamford Bridge. Despite a reprieve following Monday's 4-1 defeat at Watford, the events of last spring and early summer will ensure that his tenure comes to an end sooner rather than later.
There is one golden rule at Chelsea, one that Conte either ignored or believed he could break without suffering the consequences: Roman Abramovich's authority is absolute.
Believing he had earned himself protection from the Chelsea owner's autocratic approach by masterminding an impressive title charge last year, Conte overestimated the strength of his position by making Abramovich wait for a decision on his future when a new, improved contract was drawn up by the club.
Inter Milan wanted to take the former Juventus coach back to Italy, and there was a lucrative, five-year deal waiting to be signed at the San Siro. Conte felt he had a strong hand, and he played it, keeping Abramovich waiting before putting pen to paper in mid-July. By then, the damage had been done, and the signing of the contract, which secured a pay raise rather than an extension, was nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Abramovich had been played by his manager and had seen his authority undermined by a man who believed he could exploit his title success to pull the strings.
Conte made a number of mistakes last year, but that one might prove to be the biggest. He set himself an impossibly high bar heading into 2017-18, having won the title and reached the FA Cup final in his first season. Even repeating that success was going to be tough, never mind surpassing it, but he continued to tweak the tiger's tail.
Every manager will demand more money for players and swifter negotiations in the transfer market, as Conte did last summer. They all complain when a key target goes elsewhere, which Conte did when Chelsea seemingly allowed Manchester United to beat them to the signing of Romelu Lukaku from Everton. But while a manager's exasperation with transfer dealings is inevitable, not to mention something Abramovich has grown accustomed to, keeping the Russian billionaire waiting for a decision could be the surest way to accelerate a departure from Stamford Bridge. It ensured that all the goodwill Conte had banked by winning the Premier League title was exhausted before this season began.
Abramovich was made to wait by Conte and then forced to listen to the manager repeatedly complaining about player recruitment, so it will be only a matter of time before his patience runs out. Abramovich is nothing if not a creature of habit, and he holds little value in the successes of the past.
Carlo Ancelotti was sacked less than a year after winning the Premier League and FA Cup double, while Roberto di Matteo was gone within six months of winning the Champions League -- supposedly Abramovich's Holy Grail. As for Jose Mourinho, he was sacked just seven months after winning the Premier League in 2015, so Conte should know what is coming, even if his team's slump is corrected by a revival against West Brom and Hull City next week.
Managing Chelsea is one of the biggest jobs in football, but it is also one of the most challenging because of Abramovich's demands and impatience.
Ancelotti revealed in his autobiography "Quiet Leadership" that he was summoned to Abramovich's London apartment after a 6-0 victory against West Bromwich Albion on the opening day of the 2010-11 season and given a "dressing down, as they say in England, for the performance." If Abramovich is not satisfied after a 6-0 victory on the opening day of the season, then it is safe to assume that his mood might be even darker after the recent results delivered by Conte's team, such as the Carabao Cup semifinal defeat against Arsenal and the 3-0 home defeat against Bournemouth, both of which preceded Monday's 4-1 humiliation against Watford at Vicarage Road.
Ancelotti also spoke of "red flags" in his book, the moments that sparked Abramovich's fury and served as warning signs of his growing frustration and impatience. For example, he noted that the Chelsea owner turned up at the club's Cobham training ground to bluntly tell players and coaches that they were failing to deliver the expected results.
Conte has had plenty of his own red flags in recent months, but there will be none bigger than the one that will come if Chelsea's Champions League participation comes to an end against Barcelona in the coming weeks. When elimination occurs, it is usually a trigger for Abramovich to act.
With fourth-place Chelsea just one point clear of fifth-place Tottenham and 19 points adrift of leaders Manchester City, ahead of a daunting Champions League round-of-16 clash against Barcelona, the clock is ticking for Conte. He might have been given more time to turn it around had he played a smarter game last year, but he overplayed his hand and left himself with no credit in the bank for the inevitable tough times that have followed.
Abramovich does not dance to the manager's tune, and sooner or later, Conte will be the latest in a long line at Chelsea to discover that there is only one boss at Stamford Bridge.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_