Critical few weeks for Chelsea as Antonio Conte nears the exit
The FA Cup can save a manager's job. Arsene Wenger is still in place at the Emirates because Arsenal won the trophy last season. Antonio Conte was on the losing side in the final nine months ago but even if Chelsea replicate the Gunners' success in May, Conte cannot expect a reprieve at Stamford Bridge.
Conte may not even last that long.
The 48-year-old's relationship with the club has reached the point where both sides recognise that a parting of the ways is inevitable. Chelsea remain in contention for two trophies but advancing to the last eight of the FA Cup by beating Hull City will do nothing to heal the rift between manager and boardroom. By the time the quarterfinals come around in mid-March, Conte's fate will be decided.
The preferred option at Stamford Bridge is for Conte to continue in charge until the end of the campaign. The club's ideal scenario would be for the manager to leave by mutual consent in the summer; a clean break then would avoid the messy situation of finding a caretaker manager to guide Chelsea through the final few weeks of the season. But two factors could alter this thought process: progress (or lack of it) in the Champions League and the quest to finish in the top four, which ensures qualification for next year's tournament.
After facing Hull this weekend, Chelsea host Barcelona in the first leg of the knockout round of Europe's most prestigious competition. Conte needs a result that keeps his team in with a chance for the second leg in the Nou Camp next month. The two matches that follow are even more vital to the manager's short-term future.
Chelsea head north twice to face Manchester United and Manchester City in the Premier League. Conte's side are fourth in the current table and anxiously looking over their shoulder at Tottenham Hotspur, who are a point behind and in the midst of a fine run of form. Defeat by the Manchester clubs would put Chelsea's qualification for next season's Champions League in serious jeopardy and if that scenario occurred, Roman Abramovich would probably be forced into making an early change.
Conte has very little margin for error over the coming month and Barcelona are the first hurdle in this difficult run. The Catalan side have not been at their best in recent weeks but still lead La Liga by seven points. Lionel Messi has played eight times against Chelsea and failed to score a goal. This augurs well for Conte's team, but it is hard to see the London club containing their opponents over two legs.
Ultimately, the visits to Manchester will be a better gauge of whether Chelsea's squad are still responding to their manager. The long-running spat between Conte and Jose Mourinho spiralled out of control last month when the United manager alluded to the his counterpart's suspension for match-fixing six years ago. Conte was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing but that snide reference to the incident enraged the Chelsea manager. Conte called Mourinho a "little man" and asked the date of the game at Old Trafford, suggesting the pair "meet in a room... just him and me" to discuss the situation.
Conte cannot afford to be distracted by such quarrels. Mourinho's team are three points ahead of Chelsea in the table and have concerns about their own form; victory over the London club would go a long way to cementing United's place in the top four.
City present an even more difficult proposition. Pep Guardiola's side beat Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in the reverse fixture but the scoreline does not tell the full story. City were significantly superior to the home team in September. Conte's demeanour after that game was downcast: he had the air of a man who knew he did not have the personnel to compete with City. As he's done with increasing frequency this season, he pointed out the inability of Chelsea to recruit the players that he required to challenge for a second successive title. It was obvious the rift between Conte and his superiors was widening.
As such, a poor run of results in the three games that follow the FA Cup tie against Hull would likely force an early decision at Stamford Bridge. There are precedents at Chelsea, who've made managerial changes at this time of year before. Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked in February in 2009 and Andre Villas Boas departed in March six years ago. The sacking of the latter in 2012 was the catalyst for one of the most celebrated episodes in the club's history. Under Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea went on to win the Champions League. It would be wishful thinking to believe a similar path to glory would be inspired by Conte's departure.
Di Matteo, who was sacked six months later, inherited a side full of seasoned professionals who combined quality with character. The likes of Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and John Terry (who was suspended for the final against Bayern Munich) were among Europe's elite players. Conte's squad, by comparison, lacks a similar class and fortitude.
Chelsea will have a new manager next season. Luis Enrique, the former Barcelona coach, remains the front-runner but Massimiliano Allegri, the Juventus coach, is also highly respected at Stamford Bridge. Both will be considered in the summer but a change may come sooner.
The next month is crucial for Conte. Whatever the result against Hull, the Chelsea manager faces a defining few weeks.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.